Tour de Belgique: Calais to Bruges on a bicycle

Dover ferry port

First day – waiting to board the ferry at Dover

Many people spend their summer holidays relaxing on a sandy beach, soaking up the sun and getting into a good book. Others go for culture, visiting historic cities, enjoying the food and drink on offer. This summer I did none of those things and decided to cycle from Calais to Bruges, alone, on my new bike. I love cycling and since moving to London I’ve found it’s the most effective way to travel around the city.

After a brief glance at Google Maps I created a rather arbitrary itinerary that would take me along the coast as far as the Belgian-Dutch border before cycling back down to Bruges. I started out on Monday, and took the boat from Dover to Calais. Cycling onto the car ferry was terrifying, the ramp was so steep and my panniers were heavy as they were laden down with clothes and snacks for the week ahead.

However, after a calm 90 minute crossing I arrived in France. “Right, here we go,” I thought as I consulted my Google Map. The first two hours of my journey were beautiful – long, winding country lanes and fields full of golden corn and poppies. I planned to arrive in Dunkirk early that evening. The scenery changed somewhat after I passed through Gravelines and to my horror I discovered that the only way to reach my youth hostel was by cycling along a dual carriageway. A dual-bloody-carriageway with cars, trucks and vans zipping by. I turned off at a side path that ran alongside some railway sidings and cycled along it for fifteen minutes or so before bumping into a man who simply told me, “non madame, you must go back”, wildly gesturing at me to do an about turn.

I got back onto the dual carriageway and was comforted by the site of a couple cycling in front of me who also seemed to be heading for Dunkirk. I arrived at my youth hostel that evening, in one piece and shattered, thankful for a hot shower.

The ride the following day was shorter and more enjoyable. Dunkirk is close to the Belgian border (about 12 miles away) and once I arrived in Flanders I was pleased to find cycle paths and proper cycling routes. I followed the “Kustfietsroute” along the coast, which was signposted all the way.

The Belgian coast doesn’t have the drama of the White Cliffs of Dover but it is very charming and thankfully for me, flat. Over the next four days I saw many beautiful windswept sandy beaches, parents taking their kids away for a break, a North Sea that changed colour from blue to grey to green and back again.

The weather was great nearly everyday and I visited so many places for the first time. My highlights were Westende (small, quaint seaside town), Blankenberge (bigger, a bit like Margate and with an English-style pier) and Het Zwin, a nature reserve on the Belgian-Dutch border.

The ride from Het Zwin down to Bruges on Friday was probably the best of the week. After visiting the nature reserve, I cycled over the border into the Netherlands (just because it was there and I could!) and stopped for a cup of tea at a cafe before heading back to Belgium. I saw a lot of farms, water and countryside before arriving in the border town, Sluis.

From Sluis, there is a canal that runs all the way to Bruges which is about 10 miles away. The route is beautiful. There is very little traffic, just pedestrians, bicycles and people fishing. The canal is lined with huge trees, cute pubs and the odd windmill and is extremely peaceful.

I arrived in Bruges that evening after cycling around 110 miles or so over the last five days. My bike didn’t break down, I was lucky enough not to get a puncture (those Schwalbe tyres were worth the money!) and between a Google Map and a cycling map from the tourism office I managed to navigate my way without getting too lost.

Belgian coast

Pretty sand dunes close to Ostend

The holiday was a lot of fun and cycling gave me the freedom to be spontaneous and see things I probably wouldn’t have seen if I’d travelled by car or train. I hope to do a similar trip next year, and might even be brave enough to tackle some hills.

A one-way ticket, not a return: David Cameron takes a huge gamble on EU referendum

David Cameron received a hero’s welcome as he arrived at the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. Just hours after delivering one of the most important speeches of his premiership, Mr Cameron was cheered and applauded by Conservative MPs in appreciation of his tough new stance on the European Union.

Earlier that morning, the British Prime Minister warned that a new global race of nations was underway and he wanted to speak “with urgency and frankness” about how he believed the EU must change to deliver prosperity.

During the forty minute speech, he argued that problems in the eurozone were driving “fundamental change” in Europe and the gap between the EU and its citizens had grown, representing a lack of accountability and consent.

He added that there was “a crisis of European competitiveness,” as other nations soared ahead and warned that the biggest danger to the EU came from those who denounced new thinking as “heresy.”

Outlining his vision for the EU in the 21st century, Mr Cameron called for a flexible Union that could “act with the speed and flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc,” where power could flow back to Member States, not just away from them. He also called for a bigger role for national parliaments and provisions to ensure that whatever new arrangements were enacted for the eurozone worked fairly for those inside it and out.

He pledged that the next Conservative manifesto would ask for a mandate for “a fresh settlement” in the next Parliament, and once that was negotiated the British people would be given a referendum with a simple in/out choice.

The Prime Minister said he was in favour of Britain remaining inside the EU, and he wanted the EU to be a success but warned, “If we left the European Union, it would be a one-way ticket, not a return.”

His speech was met with much derision by both the leader of the Opposition and his European counterparts. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said he was against an in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg described Mr Cameron’s EU goal as “wholly implausible.”

Indeed, the Prime Minister may have appeased his Conservative backbenchers for now but in reality the referendum Mr Cameron wants is very unlikely to happen. First, the Conservative Party would need to win an outright majority at the 2015 general election. They failed to do that at the last general election, despite 13 years of Labour rule. The latest monthly ICM/Guardian poll places Labour five points ahead of the Tories when respondents were asked how they would vote in a general election tomorrow.

Second, if Mr Cameron were re-elected with a majority and approached the EU to seek “a fresh settlement,” why should the institutions and his European counterparts agree to negotiate? Britain is an important and influential member of the club, but so are several other Member States. If the EU agrees to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership, what’s to stop other members seeking their own “fresh settlements.” How would the EU treat those nations if that situation arose? As German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said this week, “cherry picking is not an option.”

A poll by YouGov yesterday revealed that for the first time in the current Parliament, more people would vote for Britain to stay in the EU than to leave it, with 40 per cent saying they would vote to stay in and 34 per cent stating they would vote to leave. Even if the long-promised referendum did finally come, Britain’s exit from the Union is far from certain despite the rhetoric from eurosceptic MPs and UKIP.

For now, Mr Cameron’s speech has given enormous media coverage to a subject that many Britons find too boring, too dry and too complicated but with pledges like those made yesterday and an election looming in 2015, it is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.

As the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, put it, “If Britain wants to leave Europe we will roll out the red carpet for you.”

Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

Would Brits say “oui” to staying in the EU?

The UK is “fading into the European background”, warned former European Trade Commissioner and Labour peer Lord Mandelson in July. In an interview with Euractiv, he argued that the UK government was trapped between eurosceptics and anti-Europeans and was in danger of being forgotten by other EU member states.

It’s not just Lord Mandelson that’s worried – former Prime Minister Tony Blair has also voiced concern that Britain could leave the EU. In an interview with Germany’s Die Ziet newspaper, Mr Blair said the UK’s exit from the Union could be sparked by too much power being transferred to Brussels.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently revealed that Britain now exports more goods to countries outside the EU than to the countries inside it, as businesses increasingly look to the rapidly-growing economies of Asia and Latin America. The news is likely to bolster British eurosceptics who argue that leaving the EU won’t damage international trade.

So as Europe’s economic woes rumble on, is a referendum on Britain’s EU membership becoming a reality?

Despite the frequent media hysteria about a possible referendum, the Coalition Agreement makes no reference or commitment to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

What the Agreement does say is that the government supports further EU enlargement and “is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners.” Which of course, all sounds very…positive.

Continuing, the Agreement affirms that “no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum…this approach strikes the right balance between constructive engagement with the EU to deal with the issues that affect us all, and protecting our national sovereignty.” A firmer tone perhaps, but still no references to a referendum on membership.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph in July, Prime Minister David Cameron said he was prepared to consider a referendum on the UK’s EU relationship, but only when “the time is right.”

Mr Cameron, who told the newspaper that leaving the EU is not in Britain’s best interests, has the rather challenging task of pleasing hardliners on the Conservative Right who want to leave the Union whilst simultaneously appeasing the party’s Coalition partners, the pro-European Liberal Democrats.

MPs will return to Westminster tomorrow after the long summer recess, and the Prime Minister is likely to hit the ground running by announcing his autumn reshuffle, perhaps as early as next week. Speculation over the reshuffle has swirled around for months, but Conservative Europe Minister David Lidington has been rumoured to lose his job.

Sources have claimed that David Cameron has come under pressure from Right-wingers in the party who want to see the Minister replaced with an MP who would take a harder line on Europe. Mr Lidington recently told France’s Le Monde that the UK was a “convinced European”, whose best interests were to stay inside the EU and there was “no question” of an exit any time soon.

For now, it remains unlikely that there will be a referendum, especially while the Conservatives govern in coalition with the Lib Dems. It’s possible that the tone of Britain’s relationship with the EU could change, for example if the “referendum lock” does have to be used then this could trigger a crisis if and when a new treaty is needed. Mr Cameron already prompted a frosty response from his European counterparts when he vetoed the new fiscal treaty last December.

However, in some ways nothing will change and the same old familiar story will continue to play out, with eurosceptic MPs calling for withdrawal from the EU or a “repatriation of powers”. But the reality remains that it really is in the UK’s best interests to stay inside the Union, and for that reason holding a referendum on EU membership is too riskier a gamble for the government to take.

Referendums are expensive and time-consuming – under George Osborne’s Chancellorship the UK economy continues to struggle and GDP shrank 0.5 per cent between April and June this year. If the government decided to spend millions of pounds on what is arguably a vanity project, the decision could spectacularly backfire on an already unpopular administration.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 2 September 2012. 

Eurovision 2012: Pro-democracy campaigners arrested in Baku as song contest begins

Eurovision 2012 kicks off in Baku, Azerbaijan today and the song contest’s glittering final will be held on Saturday night. With an anticipated audience of 300 million people, Azerbaijani authorities are working hard to promote a positive image of the country abroad as it hosts the contest for the first time.

Baku has seen some major re-development in recent years and boasts modern skyscrapers, a new Eurovision stadium and even a Debenhams, but sadly what it doesn’t have is democracy and press freedom.

In the run up to Eurovision, pro-democracy campaigners have gathered on the city’s streets to protest against a regime that is headed by President Ilham Aliyev – a man who  inherited his power from his father and has effectively made himself president for life.

Campaigners say they have been arrested and beaten by police for trying to stand up to the government. These claims can be backed by a report from Human Rights Watch who witnessed police violently disperse two peaceful protests yesterday. Eleven political prisoners, who were jailed after taking part in anti-government demonstrations last year, are on hunger strike until Eurovision is over. Furthermore, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claims that Azerbaijan is one of the top ten jailers of the press.

Eurovision is meant to be fun and sparkly but this year’s contest will undoubtedly be overshadowed by recent events. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the association of broadcasters that organises Eurovision, has not taken a strong public stance on Azerbaijan’s political situation and maintains the line that the song contest is apolitical.

However, it would be unfair to say that EBU has turned a completely blind eye to the situation. It held a general assembly in Baku in 2010 where it made a public commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the media in all countries where its member broadcasters operate. That includes Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has nine TV stations but only one is independent and it is often subjected to censorship. Broadcast media is dominated by the state.

Last year Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 143rd out of the 183 countries it surveyed for it’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. The report, which ranks countries according to how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be, gave Azerbaijan a score of just 2.4 out of 10 (0 means that a country is perceived to be highly corrupt).

Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, it has signed the European Convention on Human Rights and is bound by the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. It has also forged positive links with the EU and is a member of EU’s Eastern Partnership, a programme that promotes democracy and good governance, amongst other things. But despite all of this, it still has political prisoners and little freedom of expression.

Europe’s eyes will be on Baku on Saturday night and Azerbaijanis have had a rare opportunity to shine the spotlight on human rights abuses at home. Let’s hope the world’s media doesn’t forget as soon as the singing is over and that change is on its way.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 23 May 2012.

Brighton Declaration will lead to ‘substantial’ reforms to the European Court of Human Rights

Members of the Council of Europe unanimously voted in favour of reforming the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on Thursday, at a conference in Brighton, UK.

The conference, instigated by the UK chairmanship of the council, involved delegates from the 47 member states who gathered in the south coast city to discuss the reforms laid out in a draft document, known as the Brighton Declaration.

The Council of Europe, an international organisation that promotes democracy, human rights and the rule of law, is based in Strasbourg and was formed in 1949. The UK is a founding member and holds the rotating chairmanship of the council until 23 May 2012, when it will then pass to Albania.

Reform of the court was a key priority for the UK chairmanship, who believe that that court is being asked for do too much and that it takes far too long for cases to be heard. Throughout the chairmanship, Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed an agenda of increased use of ‘subsidiarity’ – national courts dealing with cases where possible, rather than the ECtHR.

The conference came in the midst of the international legal row over the UK government’s failure to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada. The UK government wants to deport Qatada to Jordan to face terror charges, but judges at the ECtHR halted those plans amid concerns that Jordan may use evidence in Qatada’s trial that was obtained via torture.

Following institutional changes to the court in 1998, plus expansion to admit new members, the court experienced a substantial increase in its workload. At present, the ECtHR is has a backlog of around 150,000 cases waiting to be heard, and estimates that around 90 per cent of applications made to it are in fact inadmissible under its rules. The court also believes that in about 10 per cent of the cases that are admissible, up to half are repetitive cases about issues that have already been decided by the court.

At the opening of the Brighton Conference, UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: “This reform is designed not to weaken human rights, or undermine the profoundly important shared valued in the Convention – but to strengthen them, and advance justice, democracy and freedom.”

Under the reforms agreed in Brighton, fewer British cases will go to the ECtHR and more will be resolved in domestic courts.  The measures agreed include:

  • Amending the Convention to tighten the admissibility criteria, and therefore making it easier for trivial cases to be thrown out
  • Amending the Convention to include the principles of subsidiarity and margin of appreciation
  • Improving the selection process for judges
  • Reducing the time limit for claims from six months to four

Critics of the declaration have said they believe the reforms won’t really make any difference to the way the court operates. President of the ECtHR, Sir Nicolas Bratza, told council delegates that the court’s judges were uncomfortable with the idea that governments could in some way dictate to the court how its case law should evolve, or how it should carry out the judicial functions conferred on it.

Although these reforms have now been officially agreed, Ken Clarke admitted that it will still take years to clear the backlog of cases the court is waiting to hear.

In the meantime, council members have reaffirmed their commitment to guaranteeing human rights in Europe and anticipate a future court that will be able to act quicker and more effectively.

This article was published by The New Federalist on 20 April 2012. 

From Eurovision to human rights reform: Brighton welcomes the Council of Europe

Brighton Pavilion, Brighton, UK

Brighton Pavilion, Brighton, UK

As the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe begins to draw to a close, delegates from the Council’s 47 member states are gathering in Brighton to discuss reforms to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will open the conference tomorrow, and delegations have just a day to put forward their views and hammer out a deal, which will be known as the Brighton Declaration. Final discussions and the adoption of the new declaration are scheduled for Friday morning.

Fittingly, the conference is being held at the Brighton Centre – the very same 1970s concrete building that has hosted countless political party conferences and a Eurovision song contest.

Throughout its chairmanship, Britain has advocated the principle of “greater subsidiarity” and wants council members to have more freedom to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights according to their own national legal traditions.

In January, David Cameron spoke at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and said: “The Court has got to be able to fully protect itself against spurious cases when they have been dealt with at the national level.”

The conference also comes as Britain clashes with the European court over the case of radical cleric Abu Qatada, whose deportation from the UK was halted by the court tonight after a last-minute appeal.

It’s clear that Cameron’s Conservatives believe judges in Strasbourg have too much power and would prefer a British court to deal with cases wherever it can, but just how much of this view is shared by other members of the Council of Europe will become apparent over the next few days.

Young, gifted and unemployed in 2012

Liam Morriss is Jogging4Jobs

Young Europeans could be forgiven for feeling like they are part of a lost generation. Despite growing up on a continent where access to education is available like never before, an increasing number of young people are finding themselves unemployed.

The latest figures released by Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, reveal that the unemployment rate in the EU rose again in January 2012 to 10.1%, up 0.6% from the previous January. Eurostat estimates that there are approximately 24.3 million unemployed men and women in the EU today.

The highest levels of unemployment were recorded in Spain (23.3%) and Greece (19.9%), where the lack of jobs has led to social unrest and emigration. The lowest unemployment figures were recorded in Austria (4.0%) and the Netherlands (5.0%).

Amongst these figures are an estimated 5.5 million people under age 25. That’s 22.4% of the youth workforce, an extra 269,000 unemployed young people compared to figures from January 2011. Figures for youth unemployment were highest in Spain (49.9%), Greece (48.1%) and Slovakia (36.0%).

Unemployment in Europe has increased at an alarming rate since 2008, when the youth unemployment still remained high at just over 15%.

Charles Simmonds, 24, from West Sussex, UK, has a degree in Business Management and some professional work experience. He lost his temporary job in the financial services sector last summer, and despite sending many different applications he has had just two interviews and remains unemployed.

Charles said: “I apply for at least four jobs each week and the response rate is slow. Less than 10 per cent of companies reply to tell me yes or no. Signing on is the most depressing 20 minutes each fortnight. At uni they said your degree is your passport to your future, the key to open doors.”

Other jobseekers have resorted to more innovative means to promote themselves and their skills. Liam Morriss, 24, from Kent, UK, has been unemployed for the last six weeks after his temporary contract in retail ended. A keen runner, Liam decided to promote his skills and job hunt by jogging 10 kilometres per day from his home in Dartford into London. He wears a t-shirt that tells passersby “I’m unemployed, I’m a graduate and I’m jogging for jobs.”

Liam said: “I was so tired of being sat in front of my computer screen every day, trawling the same jobsites and having no success. It was getting me really down. This is the first period in my life I have been unemployed and I really felt like I’d lost a sense of purpose. Now I’m doing this, although it’s not a job, it gives me an aim every day.”

Liam has a degree in Music Industry Management and has applied for over 30 jobs in the last month. He has had one interview, but was told he wasn’t experienced enough for the role.

He said: “I think it’s mad how I’ve graduated yet I’m considering starting an apprenticeship. One apprenticeship is as a trackman working for network rail. I’ve applied for a few secretarial and admin type roles, but everywhere seems to require previous experience.”

So just why are young people disproportionately affected by joblessness?

James Higgins, Employment and Social Affairs Policy Officer at the European Youth Forum explained that the reasons are complex.

He said: “The majority of young people who are unemployed find themselves in this position due to difficulties in making the transition from education to employment. Some do not have sufficient skills, some employment sectors are oversubscribed, and in general young people tend to fall victim to an increasingly volatile labour market.”

Additionally, because young people are frequently over-represented in temporary and unstable jobs, this also contributes to the rising rate of youth unemployment.

A 2011 study by EUROFOUND, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, found that young people are particularly vulnerable because they are often the first and last to enter the labour market, as they have to compete with more experienced job-seekers in a market with fewer jobs on offer.

Against this backdrop of disastrous statistics, what is the EU doing to tackle the soaring rate of youth unemployment?

Essentially, the EU has a number of different schemes which sit in the framework of its Europe 2020 strategy, a ten year plan to improve Europe’s economy. An Agenda for New Skills and Jobs is a European Commission policy initiative that aims to help the EU reach its employment target for 2020: 75% of 20-64 year olds in work. There’s also Youth on the Move, which aims to tackle youth unemployment by promoting opportunities for students and young professionals to live, study and work around the EU.

However well intended, there’s no disputing that two years into Europe 2020, youth unemployment is higher than ever and the future looks uncertain for many young jobseekers.

It is not surprising that the European Commission promotes mobility for young professionals as one way to help resolve the crisis, but if there are no jobs at home and no jobs abroad, what use is it moving? Young jobseekers need to work, or to be offered the opportunity to train or re-train, and sooner, rather than later.

This feature was published by The New Federalist on 19 March 2012.