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.

Are we OK, you and I, after you voted to destroy my dreams?

Andrew Reid Wildman, artist, photographer, writer, teacher

I feel like someone has taken something dear to me, my identity, my connection to my continent, and they have killed it. If you voted Leave, I hope you are prepared to take responsibility for what you have done, and that you do not regret it. It is over to you now, to sort out. Some friends view my reaction as an affront. That I am ‘dissing” them. It is not. It is just that you have killed something that was precious to me. You have created a country around me that I do not recognise, which feels broken and insular. That was your right to do that, you voted the way you thought was best. And you won and I lost. But in so doing you destroyed something. Many of you are now regretting your vote. Save your tears, I do not want to hear them lest I scream…

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sovereignty

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

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.

ParliamentCouncilCommission

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.

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Subsidiarity

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.

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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

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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!

frozenwarning

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.

Money

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.

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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.

Holidays

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.

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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.