Can Brexit be stopped?
More than 50,000 took part in a People’s March for Europe in London on Saturday, calling for an ‘exit from Brexit’ and promising an ‘Autumn of Discontent’.
Amid the stalemate of Britain’s aggressive and delusional exit negotiations with the European Union, more people are daring to defy the view that Brexit is inevitable.
And they are refusing to be silenced by those who say that continued resistance is undemocratic and goes against ‘the will of people’ – as defined by the 2016 referendum in which 52 per cent chose to leave and 48 per cent voted to stay in the EU.
This week sees the second reading in Parliament of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which will enable the transfer of EU laws into British law. But this ‘monstrosity’ of a bill has provoked fury because, in the words of legal expert Mark Elliott from Public Law for Everyone, it represents ‘an unprecedented transfer of power away from parliament, placing extraordinary authority in the hands of the executive.’
The irony was not lost on speakers at Saturday’s rally who recalled that a key axiom of the Leave campaign was for Britain to ‘take back control’ – only to have that ‘control’ taken back by a minority government kicking parliamentary sovereignty and democratic oversight in the teeth.
This week also sees the minority government of Theresa May attempting to rig a Conservative majority in key committees which will be involved in scrutinizing the laws. When the Tory plan emerged last week, Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was quick to condemn it.
Much of the debate in Parliament these days is over how the negotiations with the EU are going (badly) and what kind of Brexit (‘hard’ or ‘soft’) should result at the end. Though most MPs voted to remain and believe that leaving the EU will damage Britain, few now dare to say it should not happen at all.
Outside parliament it’s different. Citizens are increasingly confident in saying what politicians will not dare – that Brexit is a disaster and it can and should be halted. Minority views – in fact those of 48 per cent and probably considerably greater now – must be heard.
‘Thinking again is also a part of democracy,’ as a placard read. And as one of the speakers put it: ‘We had a referendum in 1975, and the result was “stay in”. Then another in 2016, and the result was “leave”. How can it be undemocratic not to go back to the people again?’
Placards and flags at the People's March for Europe. Picture: Vanessa Baird.
There is the background issue that people were lied to an industrial scale by Leave campaigners, and the tangled network of consequences of EU withdrawal were never properly explained by anyone.
A year on, British citizens are perhaps a little better informed and have had time to reflect and to see that Brexit is not a solution to problems caused by the 2008 financial crash (which began in the US) – which was followed by austerity imposed on the least well-off by the British Conservative government that came to power in 2010.
Many who voted Brexit were angry and frustrated with the establishment that had both ushered in globalization and then hammered them with austerity policies which protected the wealthy. But the Trade Unions Congress, which is meeting this week, is almost unanimous in its view that leaving the EU harms working people who will face an uphill struggle to retain labour rights post-Brexit.
Leaving the EU will not help those outside the London power hub, either. Rather, as we see already, the move is towards a concentration of political power in even fewer hands in Westminster. Activist Graham Hughes told the rally he was from Liverpool, which was rescued from rapid economic decline by the EU: ‘We weren’t going to get any help from London.’
Outspoken Tory peer Patience Wheatcroft said that Brexit negotiator David Davis wanted a special trade relationship with the US and the EU. ‘But we already have a special relationship with the US and with Europe – that’s what we’ve got, as part of the EU!’
Although Britain will not finally leave the EU until 2019, the impact of the referendum result is already being felt. The economic indicators are well known – a falling pound, rising inflation, economic slow-down, repeated warnings from industry and farmers about loss of skilled staff and productivity. The impact on public services is acute, as European medical staff are leaving or deciding not to come, leaving a hole in the health and other care services. One speaker reported that in his hospital EU staff who were leaving were being replaced by staff from Asia, with his cash-strapped hospital trust having to pay £1,000 in visa fees per recruit.
Three million EU nationals living in Britain, who have had their right to permanent residency ripped up as a result of Brexit, will have to re-register by 2019. Some were wrongly served with deportation notices. Paperwork for re-registration is already taking up ‘15 miles of shelf space’, one speaker reported.
More serious is the increase in discrimination and hate crime, against all minorities, but especially towards people from Eastern Europe. Landlords have refused to rent flats to eastern Europeans who have chosen to make Britain their home, and building societies have refused mortgages. There are cases of those who are jobless or homeless being moved to a detention centre in Dorset, awaiting deportation. ‘This is the face of Brexit Britain,’ said a spokesperson for a support group, citing the case of an Eastern European woman who asked to join a local choir and was told: ‘No, and I’ll come and wave you off at the airport when you are deported.’
As a number of speakers said: ‘The most important thing is – what kind of country do we want to be?’
Can Brexit be stopped? Technically, it was supposed to be irreversible after the triggering of Article 50. But with the people pressure – and at the very least a referendum on whatever exit deal is reached with the EU deal is reached – who knows? It is, after all, un-charted territory. And maybe those who have taken it upon themselves to navigate it cannot help but make an almighty hash of it because it is such a bad idea to start with.
Meanwhile, ‘Exit from Brexit’ campaigners are taking the fight to politicians, with actions planned across Britain. On 17 September they will be at the LibDem Conference in Bournemouth, on 24 September at the Labour party conference in Brighton, and the big one will be a national march and rally on 1 October in Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference.