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Can Brexit be reversed?

United Kingdom

by Vanessa Baird

The message was clear – though said through a myriad of homemade placards and impromptu chants.

On Saturday more than 30,000 crammed the centre of London in a hastily assembled mass protest against leaving the European Union.

'We love Europe' the marchers chanted, wrapped in blue flags with yellow stars. 'Winning by lying = cheating', read one placard. 'Brexit will break us – save both our unions', 'Lies, fear and only 38% is not a mandate', were others.

The crowd was good humoured and determined; protesters of all ages and ethnicities. Some, like 30-something Jez, had never been on a march before – 'but the EU is something I feel passionately about', he said.

Vanessa Baird

Onlookers applauded, waved and beeped. Suddenly, London looked like the world capital of pro-EU sentiment. The city had voted overwhelmingly to remain on referendum day – and was now still fighting to stay in.

One 14-year-old girl, Mildred, said she was protesting because 'I was not able to vote, but this affects my future. The EU gives us so much. It affects what I can do, where I can study. Whether I can get a grant. Doing this,' she said – holding up a 'give back our future' placard – 'makes me feel less hopeless.'

Mildred, 14-years-old.

Vanessa Baird

A British-Iraqi woman publicly thanked all the 'faceless EU bureaucrats' who passed laws to defend the rights of women, children, workers, minorities.

Anti-racism was rife ('We love Polish') and one group of marchers, wearing 'Hug me, I'm an immigrant' t-shirts got plenty of what they were asking for. Meanwhile, to the tune of Hey Jude, protesters swayed and sang 'na-na-na-nananana Eeee Uuuuu', as though it were a beloved football anthem.

The March for Europe was initiated online by London University graduate student Kieran MacDermott, who wrote on the event's Facebook page: 'We can prevent Brexit by refusing to accept the referendum as the final say and to take a finger off the self-destruct button.'

I was not able to vote, but this affects my future

That 'button' is invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the irreversible trigger to exiting the European Union. The purpose of the protest was to call on parliamentarians to stop that happening.

The scale of lying that had characterized the Leave campaign has rendered the result illegitimate, many claim, including numerous legal experts. A large banner read simply 'Liars'.

Lawyers have also been debating if Article 50 can be invoked by the prime minister alone or whether it has to be decided upon by parliament.

Vanessa Baird

According to three leading experts for the UK Constitutional Law Association, under Britain's constitutional settlement, the prime minister 'cannot issue a notification under Article 50 without being given authority to do so by an Act of Parliament'.

They conclude: 'Brexit is the most important decision that has faced the United Kingdom in a generation and it has massive constitutional and economic ramifications. In our constitution, parliament gets to make this decision, not the prime minister.'

And while EU countries such as Germany and France are putting pressure on Britain to get on with it and invoke Article 50, there is little appetite for haste on the British government's side, not least because no-one (not even the Leave campaign) has a plan for post-Brexit Britain.

Saturday's marchers were calling on parliamentarians not to abdicate their responsibility. 'Populism is not democracy – MPs use your brains' urged one placard.

Milly Shooter, charity worker.

Vanessa Baird

Milly Shooter, a charity worker, said: 'I'd like to see a proper serious discussion in Parliament about voting it [Brexit] down. The majority was so small [51.9 to 48.1 per cent] that we really have to think before taking such a huge decision. We elect our parliamentarians because they know a bit more about these things, they have to understand and analyze them. I feel we are making a really terrible, terrible mistake. I don't want to give up hope for change.'

The situation is politically explosive, whatever happens. Those who voted for Brexit and stand by their decision will cry foul if the process is now blocked by Parliament. But it could still happen. Referenda are not legally binding; they are advisory.

The decision to trigger Article 50 and formally exit the union is a political one, not a legal or constitutional inevitability. So is the equally controversial issue of calling a second referendum.

Law lecturer Ruth Tweedale, who was on Saturday's march, thinks there should be a rerun. 'I don't think the referendum was democratic. It's not legal because it was based on propaganda and lies.'

The evidence of this is mounting. Constitutional lawyer Michael Dougan, a professor at Liverpool University, has studied the claims of the Leave campaign and his conclusions are damning. He says the Leave campaign 'conducted one of the most dishonest [campaigns] that this country has ever seen' with lying taking place in a systematic way over a period of months and on an 'industrial scale'. The lies were across several basic and key areas and were highly effective.

Vanessa Baird

Protester Ruth, who comes from Northern Ireland, said: 'People joke that in Ireland if you don't get the “right” result in a referendum, you keep putting it to people. But actually, if the situation changes, you can put it out again. I think the situation has already changed in just a week, financially and in terms of what people now know.'

If the government doesn't call a second referendum it should call an early general election, she says.

Brexiteers have been quick to use social media to mock Remainers not accepting the referendum result – the March for Europe was met with video-posts of babies having tantrums.

But, said pro-Europe protester Milly: 'This is not a football match, it's serious. When something is this important you can't give up. We need to let the world know that that vote does not stand for us [the 48 per cent who voted to stay in the EU]. It does not stand for what I believe in: unity and diversity. I think it's better to focus on what we have in common with people, building connections. That is what the EU stood for and I want to hold on to that.'

She added, though: 'It does no good to diminish people who voted leave as racist, stupid and ignorant. Some people who voted Leave had their own intellectual arguments for why they did it. But I think the fall-out is that those people who are ignorant and racist now think they have the support of the 52 per cent [who voted Leave] and we need to let them know they don't'.

Vanessa Baird

So what now? The lack of any half-way rational plan for what to do post-Brexit adds to the sense that many Leave voters were gulled by a few selfish, ambitious politicians and Brexit cannot be allowed to go ahead. 'No plan = no mandate' read one homemade placard.

One thing is certain. The battle over Article 50 isn't over by a long chalk. As a concluding speaker said at the rally in Parliament Square: 'This is just the beginning'. The London march shows how quickly and easily such mass protests can be mobilized. The city of York had one on the same day; other Remain cities are likely to follow suit.

And a new word has been added to the rapidly growing lexicon of the constitutional, political, social and economic mayhem into which Britain has been plunged – 'Breverse'.


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