Brexit, Business and Booze

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Interviewing former Trade Minister, Lord Price.  Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

Last week I had the privilege of interviewing five experts about the on-going British drama ‘Brexit’. I was in London for the annual conference of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA) – a body that represents a £50 billion industry. Members are currently unimpressed with the government’s Brexit strategy – particularly the continual in-fighting. And when your business is all about imports and exports, you can see why leaving the world’s largest trading bloc might be cause for concern.

My first guest was the former head of Waitrose, Lord Price. He’d left his thirty year career with the John Lewis Partnership to become a government Trade Minister. But a few days before the conference, Lord Price quit government. It’s clear he is no fan of Brexit, and thinks that those who voted for it will be left disappointed. But having travelled the globe for 15 months as trade minister, he is certain the UK will eventually thrive. It’s just the time it will take to get to that point that’s the problem. Here’s the Guardian’s take on our interview.

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

I must also add what a delightful man Lord Price is. He’s written a book called ‘Fairness for All’ in which he demands a fairer kind of capitalism and seeks to explain why Brexit happened and Trump was elected. He also hammers home the importance of happiness at work, and says that’s the key to increasing productivity and therefore profits. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and feel a few bosses might also benefit!

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

Interviewing Wetherspoon boss, Tim Martin. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

Next up was Tim Martin, the millionaire founder of the British pub chain, Wetherspoon. Mr Martin is an ardent Brexiteer and contrary to the views of most of his audience, is in no doubt that the UK’s vote to leave the EU will be good for Britain. Although he had 200,000 pro-Brexit beer mats printed in the run up to the EU referendum, he is by no means anti migration. Given that one in 10 of his own staff comes from outside the UK, he knows how hard it can be to find workers. What Mr Martin says he feels passionately about is democracy and reclaiming ‘British sovereignty’. He dislikes the European Union to such an extent that he doesn’t think it matters whether or not the UK and EU secure a Free Trade Agreement post Brexit. (And yes, I did point out that would mean wine from the EU becoming more expensive, not to mention non-tariff barriers like customs delays.)

12/09/2017. London, Great Britian. 2017 WSTA Annual Conference.

From L to R: Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, Tim Martin, me & Sir Simon Fraser. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

You can imagine the response that got from my next two guests, both of whom have worked in Brussels. Until 2015, Sir Simon Fraser was head of the British Foreign Office and is now managing partner of the business advisory, Flint Global. He was joined by the international lawyer, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez who advises clients on EU trade law policy and Brexit. Both are convinced that the UK will suffer economically post Brexit and believe the country must have in place some kind of transition period to soften the blow. Of course Tim Martin disagreed with almost everything they said. It made for a challenging, interesting and at times, entertaining discussion.  It’s a serious and extremely complex subject. But at least afterwards we could enjoy a glass of (English) wine or a (British) gin and tonic.

 

Berlin: How my street tells the tragedy of the Holocaust

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Memorial plaques to Jews sent to concentration camps who lived on Große Hamburger Straße

I live in Berlin’s former Jewish Quarter and all around me are memorials to the many Jews killed in the Holocaust. Among the cobble stones in the pavement outside my apartment are brass plaques. Each one details the name and age of the former residents of Große Hamburger Straße – and to which concentration camp they were deported.

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The old Jewish Cemetery on Große Hamburger Straße. It was desecrated by the Nazis.

Just up the street is Berlin’s oldest Jewish cemetery which dates back to the seventeenth century. The German philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn was buried here. In 1943, the cemetery was destroyed by the Gestapo, and the graves desecrated. It was turned into air raid shelters and in April 1945 the bodies of thousands of Berliners killed in allied bombing were brought here.

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A memorial in Große Hamburger Straße to those killed in allied bombing. They lived in the next door building, which no longer exists.

Across the road from my apartment is a building marked with placards on the wall. Each one names a resident killed in the block that used to stand next door. It was destroyed when the bombs fell one night, killing everyone as they slept.

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A sculpture depicting emaciated Jews in the 1940s. It stands beside the old Jewish cemetery on Große Hamburger Straße on the area where the Jewish Home for the Elderly once stood.

Next door to me is a Jewish school. It was closed under the Nazis and turned into a deportation camp. The school was reopened in 1993, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Next to it was a Jewish Home for the Elderly, but this too was closed in the 1940s and turned into a camp for Jews. It was completely destroyed in bombing raids.

And this is just one street in Berlin. There are many more across this city that tell equally harrowing, tragic and moving stories of those Jews murdered by the Nazis.

What I find most humbling about living here, is that Berlin – and Germany in general – has not shied away from its past. It tells the stories in all their horror, so that those lives cut so brutally short are not forgotten. It’s a constant reminder of what humans are capable of. Many other countries could learn from Germany’s honest approach. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let’s not forget that.

You can read more detail of what happened on my street here.

Exploring Berlin by Boat and by Bike

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A section of the Berlin Wall at East Side Gallery, Friedrichshain

I’ve enjoyed being a tourist this week. My family were here for a few days from the UK and what better way to see Berlin than by boat and bike.

Boat Tour

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The Reichstag, Germany’s Parliament

Our boat tour was an hour of sightseeing along the River Spree. I’d pre-booked our tickets with BWSG for around €12 per person. We boarded the river cruise late on Sunday morning from opposite Museum Island and enjoyed the splendid views of this historic city. There was no guide, just audio in both German and English. The English version wasn’t great but it gave us the basic information we needed. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Reichstag (German Parliament) from the water and the various groups of people enjoying the sunshine along the Spree. It almost felt like summer had arrived. (It has not!)

Bike Tour

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The family on our bike tour

Monday’s guided bike tour that was the highlight of the visit. I opted for a company called Alex Rent a Bike (the name probably had something to do with my choice!) We were a mixed age group, ranging from my six-year-old son to my parents who are seventy. Then there were my nephews aged eight and eleven plus my sister, brother-in-law and myself, all with varying degrees of cycling experience.

We set off from outside Kaffee Mitte and cycled along the edge of Alexander Platz, an area that I find pretty bleak. It’s that depressing communist architecture that feels soulless and suffocating. But of course it’s part of East Berlin’s history.

Soon the road began to widen and the grey blocks gave way to impressive large, eight-storey buildings. This is Karl-Marx-Allee, which is an example of Socialist Classicism, otherwise known as Stalinist architecture. (The road was originally called Stalinallee, but was renamed in 1961.)

Following German reunification, the boulevard was painstakingly repaired and is a monument to socialist ideology and building on a very grand scale. But even before it became a Stalinist building project, this street had played an important part in the Second World War. The Soviet Red Army entered Berlin along this road and who knows how many Soviets and Germans were killed. The stories this area could tell would fill numerous books.

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My son, Charlie, enjoying the chaos of RAW, Friedrichshain

Soon we had turned off Karl-Marx-Allee and were in the lively, cool keitz of Friedrichshain. Luca took us to a pretty crazy area covered in street art and graffiti called RAW, which seemed almost abandoned. But it’s far from empty and has become one of Berlin’s clubbing hotspots. There’s also a climbing wall, huge indoor skate park, weekend market and open air cinema. In many ways, it reminded me of Copenhagen’s Christiania. Berlin, it seems, is full of these places.

Next we were peddling past Warschauer Banhoff (Warsaw Station) and within a few minutes came face-to-face with the East Side Gallery – the longest section of what’s left of the original Berlin Wall. It’s on a very busy street and the wall itself is protected with railings. Although it’s hard to get an idea of what life was like for those living in the shadow of the wall, it was interesting to see what mark artists from across the globe have left here.

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Charlie with his cousins, George and Sam, where the Berlin Wall once stood.

And then just like that we had left the East and were in the very quirky area of Kreuzberg in the West. We met an old Turkish farmer who’d built a home on No Man’s Land (between the East and West); we saw the trailer hippies, who set up camp beside the western side of the wall and are still here; we visited a city farm run by families living in the trailers.

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A City Farm in Kreuzberg, run by the families living in the lorries and trailers you can see

I’m not sure we could have taken in much more, but it opened my eyes to this incredible city. And luckily for me, there’s so much more to explore.

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My photos include: Berliner Dom, Museum Island & the Victory Column

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brexit: As felt by a Brit in Berlin

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A series of anti Brexit posters in Mitte, Berlin

Over the past nine months, I have managed to avoid the B word in this blog. It’s been a tough one because it potentially affects tens of millions of us living and working in the European Union (the UK included).

But today, I can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. The formal process for the UK to leave the EU has now begun. The UK is due to exit the European Union two years from now.

While some readers may be celebrating, I am not. As much as I try to be an impartial observer, this issue has really perplexed me. It has divided not just towns and cities across the UK but friends and families – mine included. And our differing opinions on this are as entrenched now as they were in the run up to the referendum back in June 2016.

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Flag waving at a concert in Berlin celebrating 60 years of the EU

Of course, I have a vested interest in all this because my husband, children and I are enjoying freedom of movement. We moved to Copenhagen in 2013 and to Berlin at the beginning of 2017. So where does Brexit leave us? Who really knows? Like the other million or so Brits currently living in the EU along with the three million or so Europeans in the UK, we are in the hands of the politicians. The script is unwritten.

As much as I am an optimist, I worry about my home country. I am not convinced that we really understand what we’ve done – politically, economically or socially. As a journalist it’s fascinating to watch, particularly from Berlin. But as a Brit enjoying the freedoms of the EU, I am not enjoying this one bit.

 

Denmark: Not so happy now

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A few thoughts after being interviewed by RTE (Irish radio, which you can listen to here) about Denmark’s decision to confiscate jewellery and cash worth more than 10,000 Danish Kroner (£1,000) from refugees. Today the Migrant Bill passed through Danish Parliament, despite international opposition. It also means that asylum seekers have to wait three years before they can ask to be reunited with family members.

The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, has described it as the “most misunderstood bill in Denmark’s history.”  The argument goes that if unemployed Danes aren’t allowed assets before they seek benefits, why should anyone else. Interestingly, it wasn’t just those on the right who voted yes – even many centre-left Social Democrats agree this is a fair policy. And with 70% of Danes putting immigration as a top concern, there is widespread public support towards efforts to curb immigration.

Outsiders seem shocked that ‘welcoming, liberal’ Denmark can be so tough. But the reality is, they don’t care what others think. Danes say they need to protect their borders and their small country of 5.6 million people. But it’s a far cry from the ‘Happiest Country in the World’ name tag that Denmark has enjoyed for so many years.

Denmark says ‘Nej’ to more EU

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The front page of Danish tabloid, Ekstra Bladet

The Danes have done it before and now they’ve done it again. Just when Brussels was counting on Denmark to vote ‘yes’ in an EU referendum, the country has said ‘no’. Or as one tabloid headline put it rather delicately this morning: “Løkke fik f***-fingeren”, which loosely translates as Denmark gave their prime minister the finger.

So what was at stake here? Well a cross-party group of politicians, lead by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, was hoping to persuade Danes to opt-in to EU Justice and Home Affairs rules. These included becoming an official member of the European police service, Europol, the law enforcement body that tackles crime and terrorism. (As you can read here in my previous blog, the UK signed up to some of these rules last December.)

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Leader of the Danish People’s Party (DF) Kristian Thulesen Dahl

But the no campaign, led by the Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party (DF), turned the referendum into one about trust. Who do you really believe here – the parties wanting to give away more powers to Brussels, or those of us who want to keep our sovereignty in Denmark? To Brits, it sounds pretty familiar doesn’t it? Add to the mix, the refugee crisis plus mass confusion about what Danes were really being asked to vote about, and you get this result – 53.1% ‘Nej’ and 46.9% ‘Ja’.

So what happens now? Well to be honest, no-one seems quite sure. Fast forward a couple of years and if David Cameron loses the EU referendum in the UK he’ll surely resign. But that doesn’t seem to be the precedent here in Denmark. Lars Løkke Rasmussen may only preside over a right-of-centre minority government, but he had support on both the left and right.

And what about Denmark’s membership of Europol? The Danish People’s Party had always argued that the country could negotiate a separate agreement to stay in, but no-one is sure whether that will be possible. Prime Minister, Rasmussen, is due to meet EU ministers next week to try to strike a deal. So it looks like more talking and compromise lies ahead.

Ahead of the Brexit referendum, David Cameron and co must be feeling a little hotter under the collar today. Already the British Eurosceptic UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has told Danish media “hopefully our British counterparts will suffer the same fate”.  Afterall if the Danes can do it, what’s to stop the Brits from being next?

Danish Referendum: Why the UK should be watching

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I originally wrote this opinion piece for the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, which they translated into Danish (you can read the Danish version here.)

‘More EU? No Thanks!’ shout the posters at me as I walk along the street. As a Briton, I’m quite used to this kind of anti-EU rhetoric. But this isn’t London – it’s Copenhagen.

While the battle over Thursday’s referendum intensifies, few outside Denmark will have any idea it’s even happening. After all, does anyone really care if Danes opt in or stay out of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs rules? Even a large proportion of Danes themselves seem unsure what the referendum is really about, with around a quarter yet to decide whether they’ll vote yes or no.

But there’s one European country that should be watching this with interest and that’s the United Kingdom. Within the next two years, the UK will hold its own referendum. This won’t simply be about European policing or legal matters. The question British citizens will be asked could affect the whole stability of the European Union; do voters want to remain a part of the EU or do they want to leave altogether? No wonder Prime Minister, David Cameron, is keen to prove he’s doing all he can to secure a better deal for the UK. But, as Danish Statsminister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen is discovering, it isn’t easy.

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Yes and No posters

 

Back in 2013, the government at Westminster opted out of 130 EU criminal justice and law enforcement policies. It was an attempt by Mr Cameron to repatriate powers back from Brussels in order to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own Conservative party and the UK Independence Party. But after 18 months of fractious argument, ministers finally secured parliamentary approval to opt back into 35 measures. These were considered essential for national security and included the controversial European Arrest Warrant.

That decision has been used by Mr Rasmussen as good reason why Denmark should follow a similar path. Opt in to the Justice and Home Affairs rules, including Europol, and Danes will have more control over policing and the country’s safety, he says. With terrorism on the rise, that has to be in the nation’s best interests, claims the ‘Yes’ campaign.

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The Danish People’s Party (DF) NO campaign

But just like his British counterpart, Mr Rasmussen is facing a tough time from Eurosceptics. Dansk Folkeparti (DF) is doing a pretty good job at turning the whole debate into one about sovereignty and national identity. Vote ‘yes’ in this referendum, claims DF, and you will be opening the door to European asylum and immigration policies next. Rasmussen may have ruled this out, but given the current refugee crisis, DF is successfully using this argument as a weapon of fear. And anyway, the party claims, whatever the other side argues, of course we can stick with the current parallel agreements so there’s no need for ‘more EU’.

No-one, though, can forget that Denmark has voted ‘Nej’ before – in the referendum on joining the euro. Eurosceptics across the continent will be delighted if voters in this small nation do so again, none more so than those in the UK. They may be very different votes, but if the Danes can do it twice, what’s to stop the Brits from doing it just once? So we watch, and wait.