A lifetime achievement, but still much to be done

Suzanne Fletcher 2

Suzanne Fletcher with Guy Verhofstadt

Our visit to Brussels has been one of terrific highs and awful low points.  The only thing that was consistent was the pouring rain, and the lovely welcoming help from people wherever we went.

I was there at the invitation of the committee of the regions for the ALDE-LeaDeR Awards.  I had been taken aback by being shortlisted for the Lifetime Achievement Award for long service as a councillor, for my work on environmental issues long before everyone woke up to it ( I got the first bottle – and then can – bank in Stockton in 1982), and more recently as founder member and chair of LD4SOS, an organisation within the Liberal Democrats that stands up for and campaigns on issues around asylum seekers and refugees.

The room filled with those nominated from throughout the EU for a range of different awards. There was only one other from the UK, Ray Georgeson from Otley, up for a different award from me.  I didn’t want to win; what I wanted more than anything was for the amendments from the Lords to be agreed in the House of Commons in the immigration debate that afternoon.  I silently prayed for 3,000 unaccompanied children to be given safety in the UK.

I was so glad that husband John was with me.  There is nothing I have done that I could not have done without his constant support and guidance, to say nothing of carrying my bags due to very bad neck pain and sorting these rail timetables. He was there to prompt me to go and get my award when my name was read out as the winner and I couldn’t take it in.  And of course there to share in the applause and the moment, to say nothing of taking the heavy award from me !

It was good to be supported there by Fiona Hall, my brilliant former MEP, and Paul Hayden who works for Catherine Bearder.

As I write this the train goes through Calais.  No sign of any problems, just rolling fields, some new semis, and a wind farm in the distance.  Then a lot of fences I couldn’t conceive of anyone getting through and over, although I’ve met a number with the resilience and determination to do so.  So much suffering is hidden from us, and we need to remember that as we get on with our lives.

Back to the ceremony.  It was so good to hear the citations of other Liberals from around Europe, and meet them to hear more.  So good to be reminded that so many people that we never hear about are living and working on our Liberal values.  We hear, for instance, of awful things done by the Hungarian government, but to meet a Hungarian  Liberal Party member who told me of work she and colleagues are doing there gives hope and inspiration.

There was then an extraordinary meeting of the ALDE Group of the Committee of the Regions.  I’ll write more for another article on that, but just to say how inspiring it was to be amongst such good people speaking to, and campaigning on, what we all stand for.  We debated the referendum, climate change, combating radicalism and aviation strategy.  Participants like myself were allowed to contribute and were listened to (how unlike my time on Stockton Council!).

But it was back to the rest of the world, and our UK Parliament, when we were drying out back in our hotel.  First the news of the defeat of the proposal to take in 3,000 children.  Then the rest of the news.  No judicial oversight for those detained indefinitely, and put there with no judicial decision.  No exclusion of pregnant women from being detained.  No right to work for asylum seekers waiting for more than 6 months for a decision.

We are deeply ashamed of our government for being so heartless, so unreasonable, and so….

The next day we met Fiona Hall in the European Parliament, and experienced more contrasts, as we saw the display of the proud and important history of the EU and what it has achieved.  We viewed an exhibition of women and children refugees, with photos showing the agonies and despair as they crowd on unsafe boats and journey over Europe.  But then I realise that the despair is worse than pictured.  These were people who were together as families, and ended up safe and welcome in Germany.

There was a planned visit to see Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament.  I’ve looked up to and admired so much of what he has said and done, and was surprised to be able to sit down and talk with him.  We told him of the awful defeats in parliament the night before, how we have detention with no time limit, and also the attitude of many to the EU and wanting to vote Brexit.  We shared our thoughts on the EU Turkey deal, how it wasn’t working, and was based on the wrong premise.  He told us of his vision for progress in a united Europe.  The referendum, of course, is holding up much needed progress.   There is the worry about what happens if the UK votes to leave, and the long time it will take to disentangle.  It could well destabilise the whole European project with others moving to leave, leaving the EU wide open to a downward spiral. One in which we could not compete with India and China.  One where Putin would delight.  And, of course, one that would lead to the breakup of the UK, as Scotland would undoubtedly join the EU separately.

As we saw more of the EU parliament we were drawn to the reality that so much has been done, that some things can be reformed, but most importantly that peace can be secured for our future generations.

Returning on the seamless and smooth Eurostar I knew we must never forget those we do not see, but are our responsibility.

* Suzanne Fletcher was a councillor for nearly 30 years and a voluntary advice worker with the CAB for 40 years. Now retired, she is active as a campaigner in the community both as a Lib Dem and with local organisations. She is Liberal Democrat Seekers of Sanctuary's parliamentary and external relations officer.

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