My best friend died last week.

My best friend died last week. He and 21 other innocent concert-goers were murdered by an individual to whom no attention should be paid. We cherish the memory of the victims and we mourn with their families.

Megan Hurley, Courtney Boyle, Philip Tron, Wendy Fawell, Elaine McIver, Eilidh MacLeod, Chloe Rutherford, Liam Curry, Sorrell Leczkowski, Nell Jones, Michelle Kiss, Jane Tweddle-Taylor, Marcin Klis, Angelika Klis, Kelly Brewster, Olivia Campbell, John Atkinson, Alison Howe, Lisa Lees, Saffie Rose Roussos, Georgina Callander and my dear friend Martyn Hett.

Somebody else who offered their condolences was one King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the head of the autocratic Saud family that have ruled Saudi Arabia since the foundation of the modern state in 1932. He picked up the phone to his staunch ally Prime Minister Theresa May and, like many of the world’s leaders, condemned the attack and committed to standing shoulder to shoulder with Britain in the ongoing war on terror.

There is no reason to believe his words were insincere. Saudi Arabia has, after all, fallen victim to terrorism countless times on its own soil. Yet, there is a story that’s not being told, touched upon briefly by Caroline Lucas in Wednesday’s General Election debate. As Lucas underlined, the UK is the world’s second biggest arms dealer and delivers its bombs and guns to 22 of the 30 countries on our Government’s own human rights watch list.

It should come as no surprise that Saudi Arabia is high on that list with its repressive male guardianship system; its routine imprisonment, torture and execution of LGBT people and its complete disregard for the freedoms of expression, association and belief. That’s before you even consider the Saudi-led bombing raids on Yemen, which the UN confirms have been the single biggest cause of the thousands of lives lost in the bloody conflict in the Arab world’s poorest country. The list of Saudi atrocities is long and the victims are too numerous to name. So why is it that British firms have sold £3 billion worth of weapons to the Saudis in the last three years alone, while the British government continues to send an a annual aid package amounting to less than a tenth of that revenue to Yemen? Our government’s support for the Al Saud family makes us complicit in mass murder. Sadly, at Wednesday’s debate, Theresa May was too busy to defend her government’s appalling record. What was so preoccupying that the election she called remains unclear. However, when confronted about the issue, her foot-soldier, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, merely shrugged: “It’s good for industry.”

So what does all this have to do with the callous murder of 22 people in Manchester last week? Well, it requires us to look into the ideology that drove that sorry man to commit such an act. The Saudi state-sponsored brand of Islam known as Wahhabism is widely considered to be at the source of much extremist thought. In the words of the world’s largest Muslim youth organisation, it is characterised by antipathy – at times violent – towards Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even other Sunni Muslims who do not share the Wahhabis’ rigid and authoritarian view of Islam.

“For more than fifty years, Saudi Arabia has systematically propagated a supremacist, ultraconservative interpretation of Islam among Sunni Muslim populations worldwide,” reads the official statement released by the Indonesian Muslim youth movement Gerakan Pemuda Ansor the day after my friend was killed. “The Wahhabi/ultraconservative view of Islam—which is embraced not only by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but also by al-Qaeda and ISIS—is intricately wedded to those elements of classical Islamic law that foster sectarian hatred and violence.”

I do not blame Theresa May or her government for the death of my friend, nor do I hold anyone responsible for the depraved act other than the perpetrator himself, but we cannot afford not to look at things in their context. To shrug off complicity in the killing of thousands of innocents for the sake of industry is, to my mind, criminal. To turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s aggressive propagation of an ultraconservative perversion of Islam and its role in the radicalisation of young minds is equally incriminating.

So while you might attack Jeremy Corbyn for his failure to recall a figure when pushed by Emma Barnett on Woman’s Hour earlier this week, for his shabby appearance or, God forbid, his policies, you cannot possibly fault him on the pledge to end the sale of arms to the Kingdom after almost 60 years. On 8th June, it is with conviction that I will cast my vote for Labour and for our best chance of a foreign policy we can be proud of: one that does not just aim to cash in on arms deals regardless of the consequences, but one where trade deals are conditional on the guarantee of universal human rights, democracy and the rule of law.


The Empire is dead, let’s get behind Europe!

The campaign for the UK to leave the EU, as ugly as it has become, seems to have monopolised the patriotic vote in the upcoming referendum. The media appear to be succeeding in conning people into believing that if you love your country, the only option is to vote leave. The myth of Brexit they’re fabricating involves a valiant fight to claw back British sovereignty from big, bad Brussels. Brexit, so it goes, will reinstate a Britannia that ruled the waves and is ready to go solo into the arena of world trade against America and China. Both those countries sell billions of pounds worth of products to the EU without even having a trade deal, so why can’t we? Come on, let’s get real.


It’s about time we shook off such post-imperial delusions of grandeur and took a reality check. Whatever feelings you might have about the Britain of the past, the Britain of today neither stretches across the entire globe, nor commands the same heft as it did 150 years ago when Europe was being ravaged by war. That’s today’s reality. Britain is no longer  a world power, but a mid-sized developed economy that retains influence by working in cooperation with its European neighbours. This shouldn’t be thought of as demise, but rather the inevitable course for small post-industrial island nation just off the coast of mainland Europe. So what do we really have to gain from leaving the world’s biggest trading bloc?

As Dr Andy Williamson, founder of Democratise, puts it, “an entire country’s future is at risk of being decided through ignorance. Ignorance led by mis-information and a false sense of identity that fails to grasp that this is 2016, not 1816.” We have to understand the extent of our country’s size, resources and influence as it is now -not in the past- and make the right decision based on this information.

It is not patriotic to perpetuate a delusion – “a naïve and shortsighted hark back to the glory days of Empire, with a worryingly modern dose of isolationist xenophobia.

It is not patriotic to ignore the raft of international economic institutions urging the UK to #Bremain; not to heed warning of the damage to the British economy, to impose a “Brexit tax” equivalent to one month’s income on every worker by 2020.


What is patriotic is to want what’s best for your country and its people. Study after study have shown that EU membership is beneficial for Britain; Universities unanimously advocate a remain vote; the medical profession, scientists, farmers and trade unions representing around 6 million workers are pushing for us to stay in, not to mention the IMF, OECD, World Bank, Institute of Fiscal Studies, the Bank of England governor and the leader of the free world.

If you want to strengthen Britain and strengthen the forces for stability, security and social justice in the world, vote to remain.

David Milliband, 12th April 2014

Parties from across the political divide and grassroots movements have shown how and why the EU benefits not only the economy, but our security,  the environment, research, healthcare and the cultural sector; it creates jobs and secures social protections and consumer rights for all Brits.Yet the debate continues to be stuck in the mud with angry claims from impassioned Brexiteers that the EU somehow deprives the UK of its sovereignty and is completely anti-democratic. This really needs to be knocked on the head.


For the leave crowd, it’s easy to paint the EU as a conspiracy to circumscribe our ancient liberties, emasculate the British Parliament, and progressively extend the reach of “faceless bureaucrats and unelected judges” into every “nook and cranny” of our national life. They want their sovereignty back.

The definition of sovereignty, if it ever was clear, is certainly being blurred into a Brexit buzzword in the debate. But, as far as I can see, it’s most useful to think about it as our ability to get things done. EU membership allows the UK to punch above its weight and show leadership on issues that cannot be tackled by Westminster in isolation: clamping down on corporate tax evasion, cleaning up our air and beaches, protecting our wildlife, magnifying our influence on the world stage. Our country’s ability to achieve these things, its sovereignty if you will, is dependent on us being at the table. Sure, if we walk away from the EU we will get back sovereignty in purist form over policies like  environment, trade, fighting international corporate tax avoidance etc… but since these policies are, by their very nature, cross-border, our ability to get anything done in these areas is reduced to a minimum and stops at our borders.


Democracy is something we should all be able to get behind – putting power in the hands of the whole population who then hand powers of lawmaking and governance to elected representatives –  MPs in the UK’s case and MEPs in the equivalent EU scenario. So why are the bigwigs of Vote Leave getting away with claiming that the European Union is entirely undemocratic? In the three principal institutions of the the EU – the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the Commission – there is at least some semblance of democracy.


The Parliament is directly elected to represent the voice of the people, the Council of the EU is made up of the elected ministers of EU governments and the Commission, whilst not directly elected, is made up of civil servants from all 28 members states. Its composition reflects the results of the elections, and its president is approved by a majority of all EU heads of state, the Parliament and the Council. It should be seen for what it is: the EU’s civil service. Think about it, when was the last time we elected our the civil servants in Whitehall? And, yes, officially the Commisssion has the sole right of initiative, but no law can be passed without the rubber stamps of the other two institutions. And in reality, the Commission is beholden to these other democratic bodies and listens to their proposals for new laws.

No, I am not blind enough to claim that the EU’s institutions couldn’t do more to close the democratic deficit. But the assumption that, in comparison, Westminister is somehow the holy grail of democracy, accountability and transparency  is a fallacy. Only 24% of those eligible to vote actually put a cross next to a Tory candidate on their ballot paper in May 2015, and 3 million UKIP votes gained them one MP. European elections are comparatively far more representative.

Take a look at the graphic below that compares side by side the UK system versus the EU system and see if you can discern a difference.



Not only that though, EU law has the idea of subsidiarity written into it –  the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority. So whilst it’s easy to say the EU is interfering in all parts of our lives, when unpicked, this just isn’t true. It acts only where it really needs to.

The subsidiarity principle rules out EU intervention when an issue can be dealt with effectively by Member States at central, regional or local level and means that the EU is justified in exercising its powers when Member States are unable to achieve the objectives of a proposed action satisfactorily and added value can be provided if the action is carried out at EU level. Importantly, where this principle is deemed to have been contravened, guess what, national parliaments can intervene!

But people aren’t getting this. It’s easy to say the EU is anti-democratic, but somewhat more complicated to explain to someone just how this isn’t really the case. We really must try.

I am worried. As the days to the referendum pass by, there is no give in the polls. The debate continues to get uglier and uglier, and it looks like, as I should have foressen, immigration is going to be the decisive factor when Brits make this incredibly important and permanent decision on 23 June.

If you want to us to remain, now is the time to do something about it. Get in touch with Stronger In or your local political party and see where and how you can help out delivering leaflets, knocking on doors or just talking to your undecided friends and families. You don’t want to wake up on 24 June and wonder what you could have done differently.

Swipe left: Internet & the EU referendum

Interesting look from our Sam Miles at how younger voters in the referendum are, willingly other otherwise, being marginalised in the referendum debate.

sexuality and the city

Flags.jpeg European flags (The Spectator)

I took a break from blogging last week because I was visiting Madrid, but the good news is that it has given me a valuable theme to cover this week. Rather than a departure from writing on technology, sex and cities, think of this article as a different take on technology and social media.

Turn on the television, or open any newspaper (I am trying and failing to stop myself from yet again adding “or should that be swiping on your tablet?”) and you’ll see acres of coverage of the upcoming European Referendum. Staying with my friends in Madrid really hammered home to me the enormity of what is approaching this month: a full-scale national referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union.

As you can imagine, those I talked to in Madrid were already sick of the debate. After all, Britain…

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Vote Remain and support British Science and Universities

In a referendum debate where swathes of the British media have no qualms about publishing an endless barrage of scaremongering half-truths, it is refreshing to hear clear, fact-based arguments from passionate pro-European voices. Representatives of British universities and the UK science community came together at the British Chamber of Commerce in Belgium earlier this week to set out exactly why there is such strong support for EU membership across universities and the science community. Pro Europa welcomed the President of Universities UK Dame Julia Goodfellow and the organisation’s Deputy Chief Executive Alistair Jarvis, as well as Dr Mike Galsworthy, Programme Director of grassroots campaigns Scientists for EU.

We can be proud in the UK of fostering cutting-edge science and being home to some of the very best universities in the world. But the message was clear – the UK’s membership of the European Union makes our outstanding position even stronger.

Our universities, Dame Goodfellow explained, have been incredibly successful in winning the competitive grants offered by the EU, taking full advantage of the funds available. Depending on the focus of the university, these grants can amount to 25% of a university’s research funding. Are we really willing to effectively cut the research budgets, with no indication that the UK government would plug the gap?

An engine for collaboration

More than that though, most of the very best research is done by the best minds collaborating in teams working across borders. Indeed it has been found that research with international collaborators has nearly 50% more impact than research done at national level. Academics tell us that frameworks, programmes and funding from the EU support this kind of collaboration and make working across borders that much easier.

Dr Mike Galsworthy, the Programme Director of Scientists for EU, made a passionate case for the UK to remain in the EU grounded on the EU’s scientific prowess and the benefits for the UK’s science community. In fact, the EU produces over a third of the world’s scientific output – producing % more research than the US does. And Britain benefits from being at the helm of this scientific powerhouse.

Working together, UK and European researchers pool their resources, expertise, data and infrastructure to achieve more together than they could do alone. Many of today’s challenges are global, not national. In the EU, researchers can collaborate more easily to come up with solutions on an international scale, making the most of Europe’s diversity to achieve bigger and better results.

Indeed, 62% of scientific research in the UK involves collaboration with partners across borders, an asset which securing research that has around 40% more impact. Brexit could seriously limit the mobility of researchers and choke the international collaboration that has seen British science flourish in recent years.

“In the last few years some of our best students have come from outside the UK. The advent of the EU, and the workplace mobility, has had a considerable impact for the good, on teaching and research.”

Emeritus professor of muscle physiology, Manchester Metropolitan University

Enhancing the student experience at university and beyond

The exchanges of UK and other EU students via the EU’s flagship Erasmus+ programme is another hugely undervalued benefit of EU membership, that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to just jump back into post-Brexit, as Switzerland recently found out. As well as culturally enriching the university experience both in the UK and abroad, participation in the Erasmus programme halves the chance of students facing long-term unemployment after graduation.

Benefits beyond the university campus

Dame Julia Goodfellow of Universities UK is convinced: our outstanding universities are stronger in Europe.

As Dame Julia Goodfellow explained though, it’s not only students, graduates and academics that benefit from the success of our universities within the EU: “This should matter to everyone because universities are about the future prosperity  of the UK – driving the economy, creating jobs and enhancing our society.” Universities have a major positive impact on local economies, attracting investment, supporting and growing businesses and creating jobs. Universities are often the largest employers in their area, with many other jobs dependent on their expenditure and that of their students.


Beyond that, the cutting edge research coming out of British universities benefits us all – it brings about advances, discoveries and inventions that improve people’s lives – from medicine and healthcare to new materials, products and services.

What’s at stake?

Alistair Jarvis, the Deputy Chief Executive of Universities UK also highlighted that “the quality of our universities attracts around 125,000 continental European students who spend £2.67bn in UK each year.” That’s over of quarter of the balance of the UK’s total annual contribution to the EU budget. What’s more, around 15% of all academic staff in our universities bring their expertise and insights from other EU countries.

Let’s be clear. A Brexit puts both these factors at risk. If the UK does withdraw from the EU, it would at the very least mean a huge hike in fees for EU students in the UK, making British unis significantly less appealing to Europe’s brightest minds who might otherwise come to work, study and contribute to our economy. Many of the valuable staff, even before the referendnature-brexit-31-03-16-onlineum, have started looking for work back on the continent.

The arguments for remaining are compelling, and that’s why 83% of UK scientists and all 132 members of Universities UK are backing the remain campaign. We owe it to the future success of British science and universities to vote to stay in the EU and ensure they keep
their place as global leaders.

United in Diversity: The EU and Me.

Great blog post debunking many of the myths of the Leave campaign with solid research!


United in Diversity, the official motto of the European Union, inspired by Ernesto Moneta, Italian Nobel Peace Prize winner. Never has it seemed so pertinent than now, in this ever more divided and dangerous world.

I have many reasons for wanting everyone to vote to stay in the EU, not one of which is because David Cameron or Jeremy Clarkson want to remain. This is a few of them. There will be more, you’ve been warned.


I’m sure you’ve heard the Brexit argument that if we weren’t sending gazillions of £s to the EU every day we could fund the NHS properly. Then you’ve probably heard that if we weren’t sending all that cash to the EU we could fund education properly. On the other hand you might have heard that if we weren’t sending all our moolah to the EU on a daily basis we could fund our…

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Love euro neighbour

Reasons to celebrate our European neighbours and remain in the EU

The European Union’s principle of the freedom of movement is getting some pretty bad press these days. The British media, UKIP and unsavoury former Apprentice candidates seem all too happy to do away with any semblance of critical analysis and resort to facile conflations for their own Brexitty ends. The UK, so the argument goes, can better secure its national security outside of the EU, without the distraction of other EU member states. In the current climate, just several days after a terrorist attack at the heart of Europe, this debate needs to be had. 

However, it becomes irresponsible if that involves equating refugees with jihadi fighters, the foreign with the hostile and freedom of movement with invasion. It’s easy to become blinded by such this kind of distortion, which sees important nuances of the debate slip away. We end up descending into a fruitless state of fear and blame.  

In an attempt to redress the balance, here’s a reminder of some of the ways we Brits benefit from the principle of the freedom of movement within the European Union.

Greater tolerance

Apart from breaking down stereotypes and prejudices, and encouraging tolerance and understanding among people of different cultures, the principle of freedom of movement of people has (for some at least) contributed to a sense of European collectivity that makes EU countries more likely to pull together to solve shared problems (see my post on EU as a peacemaker).

Higher Education

One concrete example is the Erasmus+ programme which has so far funded over 231,000 young Brits to spend time working or studying abroad, encouraging cultural exchange and understanding, improving their linguistic skills and boosting their employability. It’s a ways of broadening your horizons, opening your mind to different cultures, and it also teaches you to appreciate the comforts of your own country too. You might get the best wine in the world in France, delicious beers in Belgium, vodka in Poland, Porto in Portugal… but you can’t get a proper cup of tea anywhere but home.

ErasmusErasmus 2

What’s more, British students can benefit from the more affordable university fees in our neighbouring EU states. It was this fact that allowed me to even consider doing a Master’s degree last year. In Belgium, I paid around €600 (£470) for degree which would have cost anywhere between £5,000 and £20,000 at home. For students from outside the EU, though, the fees rocket to €3,500.

Also worth mentioning is the contribution EU citizens make to the UK’s economy through our university system. The 125,000 EU students at British universities generate more than £2.2bn for the UK and create 19,000 jobs, while 14 per cent of academic staff come from other EU nations. Brexit threatens to cut this important source of income and talent.


It might seem banal to say it as I write this in a coffee bar in Copenhagen, but we tend to overlook the fact that EU has made it possible for millions of Brits to enjoy holidays. Cheaper flights with compensation for delays, the freedom to cross borders, access to healthcare when abroad, reduced roaming charges are all benefits that make a holiday to Med more accessible.


Living abroad

There’s an untruth about the UK being ‘swamped‘ by EU migrants. What is so often forgotten is that around 2.2 million Brits, including myself, enjoy the freedom of living and working in other EU countries, too. It’s more or less 1:1. As an EU citizen living in one of the 27 other Member States, you benefit not only from the cultural enrichment, but also the same rights, benefits and advantages as nationals of the given country. If I was to be laid off here in Belgium, I could claim unemployment benefit just as I could in the UK. It seems fundamentally unfair to expect our fellow EU citizens not to enjoy the same treatment if they chose to come and live in the UK.

Grayling’s arguments exposed in Brussels

A bloody-minded nationalism was met with calm reason at Egmont Palace in Brussels on Thursday night when the Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling went head-to-head with British Labour MEP Richard Corbett in a debate on the risks and challenges presented by the UK’s Referendum on EU membership.

Mr Grayling, Tory cabinet minister and a leading voice in the Leave campaign has previously sparked controversy when, in his previous role as Justice Minister, he tried to cut legal aid and impose a blanket ban on sending books to prisoners. After arriving late at the Egmont Palace in Brussels, he began his case in a conciliatory tone, noting that he “should very much like to maintain friendly relations with the rest of the EU” in the case of Brexit. But from then on he developed a confident but flawed argument for the UK withdrawing from the EU, reeling off a litany of half-truths; a mixture of scaremongering, arrogance and a narrative of British exceptionalism.

Here are just some of Grayling’s arguments that were busted over the two-hour debate.

The UK will be side-lined if it remains in the EU

Grayling’s argument was based on conjuring up dystopic future according to which the UK is set to be marginalised by a ruthless bloc of Eurozone countries. The scare tactic hinged on twisting the 2015 Five Presidents’ Report on the integration of the Eurozone. Mr Grayling was brazen in reinterpreting the report for his ends, claiming that a bloc of 26 Eurozone countries would “completely control all of the institutions of the EU.”

Grayling misread not only the report, but his well-informed audience of policy officers, lawyers and academics, who were aware of the report’s status, now languishing on the back burner of the European Commission’s agenda. It was left to the more cool-headed Labour MEP Richard Corbett to put the record straight on Grayling’s far-fetched claims, questioning why exactly a bloc should form at all. For instance, is the Netherlands – whose agenda his broadly aligned with that of the UK – really likely to vote against Britain on matters of Foreign Policy or farming subsidies just because Brits have opted out of the monetary union? Mr Corbett proposed that the UK is more than capable of continuing to combine pragmatism and idealism to cooperate within the EU where it makes most sense to do so.

The EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU

The UK’s trade deficit with the EU was used by Grayling to claim that the UK would not lose out if it were to go it alone. The line is that, in the event of an exit, Britain would have little trouble negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU because the UK imports more from the rest of the Union than it sells to it. Yet, this was questioned by the rest of the panel members who noted the arrogance of assuming that the UK could dictate terms of its trade arrangements with the 27 other EU members and other global players with which the EU has already negotiated favourable terms.

Richard Corbett gave the example of South Korea. The EU’s free trade agreement with the Seoul has resulted in the UK doubling its exports to the country. Renegotiating such deals without the clout of the EU, apart from taking years, does not guarantee the same favourable tariff conditions.

The UK is safer outside the EU

A strong argument for remaining in the EU has been the security advantages afforded by sharing intelligence Europe-wide. Even in the aftermath of last year’s attacks in Paris, Grayling was quick to pooh-pooh the importance of such EU-wide intelligence sharing. He gloated about the the UK’s unparalleled security services and focussed instead on the special relationship with the US.

A man well placed to judge, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has said that both the UK and the EU stand to lose out in terms of security should we vote leave on 23 June; a lose-lose situation.

EU membership robs the UK of its sovereignty and national identity

Where the former Justice Minister was perhaps most impassioned was on the subject of sovereignty. Yes, that old chestnut. In spite of House of Commons’ own report revealing that only around 15% of UK legislation is made in Brussels, Mr Grayling argued fervently that Westminster needed desperately to wrest back its sovereignty from the huge centralised government in Brussels and make its own decisions. “Britain,” he said, “is a proud nation,” that is better off out.

It was here that the panel really took issue with Mr Grayling’s UKIP-reminiscent chauvinism, noting that the EU’s motto is “united in diversity” and all member states are proud nations with strong individual identities and interests. This was not the usual VoteLeave crowd that Grayling has clearly become accustomed to.

In countering Grayling’s overblown pretension that the UK is powerless against the EU machine, Mr Corbett went back to basics, reminding him that the Commission (the initiator of EU law) is appointed by elected governments, that government ministers sit on the Council and that the European Parliament is directly elected by us, the European citizens. He was reminded that the EU is a project that allows member states to pool their sovereignty to tackle the big issues that transcend national borders; the environment; terrorism; fair global tax regimes to name but a few.

The verdict

To give him his due, Chris Grayling was up against a tough audience, and was outnumbered on the panel by 3 Bremainers to 1 Brexiter. But the arguments he made were unfounded, and they unravelled when confronted with the facts.



Brexit won’t make the refugee crisis disappear

“Irregular migrants” – this is the kind of disdainful expression being used in the current crisis to describe refugees; the thousands of people fleeing their homes not only in Syria, but also Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, South Sudan and beyond. They’re packing up and heading to Europe, not for the fun of it, but to avoid being caught up in the proxy wars of world powers, the tyranny of extremist regimes, discrimination and human rights violations. Read just beyond the news headlines and you begin slowly to get a sense of the immense suffering our fellow human beings must be experiencing to go to such lengths.6000.jpg

Locals on the island of Lesbos help bring migrants to safety after their arrival by boat.       Photograph: Kostis Ntantamis, AP

I was dismayed last week by the EU’s response to the crisis. The proposed agreement between Brussels and Turkey will, if finalised next week, put in place a one-in-one-out deal, whereby  for every “irregular” Syrian migrant returned to Turkey from Greece, one Syrian refugee will be resettled from Turkey to the EU. The intent is to discourage refugees from getting in boats in hope of being offered settlement in Europe. Instead, the EU plans to ship refugees to camps in Turkey, and pay off President Erdogan with an extra €3 bn and promises of  visa liberalisation and EU accession.

Forcibly removing people from Europe en masse, and with different treatment for Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, does not fulfil this basic legal obligation.
David Milliband, International Rescue Committee

Even if you are able to turn your back on the human suffering and agree with principle of trying to keep these people at arm’s length, the EU’s solution is clearly not a sustainable solution and belies a complete breakdown of logic, human understanding and arguably flouts legal obligations. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are currently only around 20,000 resettlement places on offer for Syrians to the EU over the next two years. Yet, in the first two months of this year, 126,000 Syrian refugees arrived in Greek shores. The idea that refugees will stop coming if they know that the borders are blocked, apart from being inhumane, is also wishful thinking when the push factors are terrorism and war.refugif

The real choice facing European leaders is not whether people continue to flee to Europe or are stopped by borders. It is whether they allow inhumane, disorderly and illegal arrivals of refugees to continue, or succeed in agreeing a humane, orderly and legal alternative.

David Milliband, International Rescue Committee

I cannot defend the EU’s response to the refugee crisis. But I can understand how it’s coming to pass, as different shades of xenophobic, if not downright racist, right-wing politics is on the rise across Europe. Golden Dawn in Greece, Law and Justice in Poland and the Danish People’s Party have all increased their support on a platform of ethno-nationalism and anti-immigration policies. Even if you disregard the 3.9 million Brits that voted for UKIP, British mainstream politics is by no means immune to this sharp shift to the right. It’s incredibly worrying that our own governing Conservative party collaborates in the European Parliament with Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)You know, the one who just made gains in yesterday’s regional elections in Germany and whose leaders have advocated the police shooting at female refugees crossing the border illegally.

A mother washes her one-month old child in a puddle at the refugee camp in Idomeni, Greece. Photograph: Iker Pastor
Why Brexit is not the solution

I’ve been surprised by a number of people on the political left who, for various reasons, are ambivalent about the EU and reluctant to vote in the EU referendum. So why, if you are concerned about the situation for refugees on the EU’s external borders, should you vote for the UK to remain part of the European Union? For me, there are two reasons.

Firstly, opting for the alternative – a Britain outside the EU – will do nothing to improve the situation for refugees. David Cameron has so far offered a pitiful 20,000 places for Syrian refugees over 5 years, and insisted Britain will not be involved in any EU-wide refugee quota system or help with refugees already in Europe. All signs point to there being even less support for refugees from the government if we were to pull up the drawbridge and leave the EU.

Secondly, even if you can envisage a progressive UK government post-Cameron (or heaven-forbid Boris Johnson), a UK outside of the EU will be powerless to do anything if its not part of the EU. The crisis affects the entire continent, and as such demands a coordinated continental-scale response. The way to tackle such shared challenges is through more cooperation, not less, and so voting for Brexit is tantamount to sweeping the problem under the rug.

Although you might not hear them against the right-wing tabloid headlines, there are voices in Europe arguing for a fairer and more humane response to the crisis. Greens, Social Democrats and Liberals in the European Parliament are all calling for the EU to share the burden of refugees equally. The Spanish congress spoke out for the first time against an EU agreement – the proposed EU-Turkey deal – with 227 of 350 Spanish MPs voting against what the Socialist leader called a “pact of shame.” Even the vilified Angela Merkel’s faltering stance on welcoming refugees to Germany has been a damn sight better than Cameron’s attempts to side-step the issue.

So if you’re really concerned about the plight of refugees, instead of the defeatism implied by backing Brexit, a vote to remain makes more sense.

I’d like to think the British public on the whole has the heart to welcome refugees rather than turning its back on suffering, which is exacerbated in part by the UK’s military involvement in Syria. But for that to happen, fears need to addressed and the debate cannot be dictated by a one-sided right-wing media. Inflammatory comments about migrants stealing jobs and bringing the NHS to its knees need to be quashed with facts.

We know that the UK is a net beneficiary from EU migrants. We know the NHS is propped up by migrant workers. And if public services are under pressure, it’s not due to the arrival of young Syrians but the failure of successive governments to invest sufficiently in the future.

Ultimately, it’s only with Europe that the current crisis can be solved. David Milliband, now Chief Exec of the International Rescue Committee, sets out today how the EU can ease the crisis with a plan to ramp up sea rescues, secure safe passage from the region , relocation of refugees already in Europe and rapid disbursement of EU humanitarian funds. Either we get in on this kind of plan, or we shirk our responsibilities with Brexit.





Out & Proud? Not so fast!

You might have missed the brief rolling of eyes on social media last week when Out&ProudUK – the LGBT campaign to leave the European Union – came out of the closet. The campaign, run by one Adam Lake, aims to emancipate LGBTI Brits from their apparently naive belief that the EU protects and promotes their civil rights. Lake believes he’s doing us the favour of removing the shackles of this perceived duty, empowering LGBTIs to vote to leave the EU with a clear conscience. The essence of his argument is that the UK is “a shining beacon of LGBT rights and civil liberties” in spite and not because of the EU.

Is the UK leading the way?

Now, I feel fortunate that we in the UK enjoy the second best legal and political rights  for LGBTI right of all EU countries, just behind Malta. But this is a fairly new phenomenon. For instance, while our Scandinavian neighbours legalised same-sex sexual activity long before the European Union even came into existence (Denmark in 1933 and Sweden in 1944), the British government was still criminalising gay men up until the Summer of Love. Remember Alan Turing, the British code-breaking hero, whose genius is said to have cut short the Second World War by two years? In 1952, he was prosecuted for having a relationship with a man, and was forced to choose between incarceration or chemical castration. The government-prescribed “cure” of  female hormones caused him to grow breasts and rendered him impotent. He took his life two years later. Thank God we’ve come on since then.

Alan Turing (1912-1954), the codebreaker whose work helped to turn the tide of the Second World War, was prosecuted for his sexuality and took his own life after undergoing chemical castration.

It was not until 1967 that the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men over the age of 21 in England and Wales. But parity in the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual couples wasn’t achieved in 2000. And even the equal marriage legislation – a much-lauded beacon of the UK’s commitment to equality – came over a decade after the Netherlands and Belgium introduced the legislation, two of 7 EU nations to beat the UK. Starting to see the pattern? It was our progressive EU neighbours that started the ball rolling in 2000 and 2003 respectively, helping to lay the foundation for the change in British law in 2014.

Are we there yet?

Combine the history with today’s attitudes to the gay community and the UK stops looking like that shining beacon of tolerance and acceptance. In fact, the 2010 European Social Survey  puts the UK behind 4 of our EU neighbours in terms of tolerance of homosexuality. 15 percent of British people disagreed with the statement “Gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own lives as they wish.” Even more worrisome were the results of the 2013 British Attitudes Survey which found that 1 in 4 Brits found “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” to be either always or mostly wrong.

When research published in 2014 shows that 44% of young English LGBTI people have had suicidal thoughts, I don’t really think it’s time for us to become complacent about our country’s ability “to champion LGBT rights around the world,” outside the EU. Social attitudes, even British ones, take time to catch up with legislation that challenges society’s prejudices. In Britain, the chances of this process coming to completion are better if we stand together with our European neighbours, some of whom have paved the way for us in terms both of legislation and societal acceptance.

Most people know there are such things – ‘pansies’ – mincing, effeminate, young men who call themselves queers (…) but simple decent folk regard them as freaks and rarities.
Evil Men, The Sunday Pictorial (1952) 

Putting aside social attitudes, the UK’s laws on protecting the LGBTI community are worth celebrating, but they are not perfect – equal marriage is still not recognised in Northern Ireland – and they are not immune to future changes in law. We mustn’t forget that when the House of Commons voted on the legalisation of gay marriage in 2013, a majority of 139 Conservative MPs, including two cabinet ministers, voted against the measure, with a further 75 abstentions. Ulrike Lunacek, a Vice President of the European Parliament and chairperson of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup hit the nail on the head when she said recently that a Brexit opens the door for a future UK government to “repeal anti-discrimination laws, but as an EU member you have to have them.” The EU guarantees rights LGBTI people in Britain as much as it does for all EU citizens.


For example, all states of the EU must, as a condition of their membership, agree to a whole range of international instruments– including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – which set out a catalogue of fundamental rights for all. And yet, last June our Prime Minister threatened to pull the UK out of the ECHR all in the name repatriating sovereignty. Yet if human rights, as we understand them, are universal, surely we don’t need a different version of them for every European country. Here is another area where we can do better together.

I’m all right, Jack

‘Ulrike Lunacek also explained that in the case of a Brexit,”The EU and other organisations that the UK are in touch with wouldn’t take LGBT issues as seriously. This would weaken the EU.” This brings me to my second and more important point: what has happened to our sense of solidarity?

The fight for LGBTI rights goes beyond the borders of our islands. The exceptional thing about the LGBTI movement is its solidarity that transcends societal divisions and geographical borders. The EU with Britain in it has been instrumental in putting pressure on its newer member states and neighbours to enforce anti-discrimination and equality laws (see this short paper on Ukraine for an example).

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans & Intersex Association’s Map of World Laws 2015 

As a result, the EU is broadly very LGBTI-friendly, at least in global terms. It boasts one of the most extensive sets of anti-discrimination legislation in the world and promotes the rights of LGBTI people internationally. You can find Belinda Dear‘s more comprehensive overview of all the measures the EU has taken towards LGBTI equality here.

But, even with these standards and values in place, the EU rightly continues to push for equality and better recognition and protection of the LGBTI family both within and beyond its borders. The Rights, Equality and Citizenship programme combats racism, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of intolerance in the EU, while beyond those borders, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights supports projects defending the rights of LGBTI people. It’s uncertain that a UK outside the EU will continue to contribute to these efforts if you consider the usual right-wing calls to cut development aid. This should be reason enough for any supporter of fairness and equality to think twice before backing Brexit.

Only this week, 27 of the 28 members of the Council of the EU (the governments of the 28 members) supported a List of Actions on LGBTI equality. Only Hungary’s veto stopped the adoption of these measures. The Out&ProudUK line effectively says, “everything’s tickety boo for us in Blighty, so I’m all right Jack.” Regardless of the dubious claim that the UK will act as an ambassador for LGBTI right outside the EU, its support and influence is needed at these very Council meetings to help bring about the changes that will improve the lives of the millions of people who don’t have it as good as us. It would be a shame to think that the UK might not even be at that table pressing for these important measures when the Council tackles them again in June.

It’s by remaining part of the EU – a vocal and influential promoter of human rights – that the UK can multiply its impact in promoting LGBTI rights. So, friends of equality sitting on the fence in this debate, I urge you to think twice before buying Out&ProudUK’s line. A vote to leave risks the precious but precarious status quo of British tolerance of LGBTI equality and opens the door to less equality through the disavowal of universal human rights. A vote to remain, on the other hand, cements the UK’s hard-won place at the vanguard of LGBTI equality and civil rights promotion.