So where will you be on Saturday 23 September? Peter Corr, co-founder of the National Rejoin March is convinced this year’s annual event in London will be “even bigger” than last year’s. Sadly, I’m not so sure.
I will be there. But I’m not finding the usual enthusiasm among many of my pro-Europe friends and family. Some think the Campaign’s slogan is wrong, that to ‘rejoin’ is backward-looking, that we need to be forward facing, carving out a new future and not seeming to reproach ‘the Leavers’. As Matthew d’Ancona noted: “A campaign that scolds voters will always fail.”
Others tell me the apocalyptic scenes of fire and storm we’ve seen this summer have diverted their finite campaigning energies on to the climate catastrophe, away from freedom of movement to freedom of survival. And yet another group have that dead-eyed British ‘What’s-the-point?’ shrug and you can see them being swallowed up by the slough of despond, that hopeless powerless resignation where we’ve lost trust in our leaders, our democracy, indeed in hope itself.
The narrative that is becoming worryingly normalised, and which I believe needs challenging, is the one which says ‘We won’t rejoin in my life time’ or ‘It’ll take another generation’. It’s true it will take some skilled negotiators to heal the festering wounds opened up between us and the EU by this Tory government.
It’s also probably true we will never be able to re-join on the same terms as we had before – although there are still politicians in the EU who might be prepared to argue our cause, remembering that we did actually once contribute quite a lot of skill, clout, and money to the European project.
Economic damage of Brexit
That being out of the European Union has done untold economic damage to the UK is now irrefutable. At last there is some acknowledgement of this in the media as businesses, farmers, fishermen and the travelling public tell their stories of excessive red tape, closed EU markets, supply problems and interminable queues. Statistics confirm their experiences, as d’Ancona points out: “In March, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated that Brexit would slash 4% from the UK’s GDP (that’s £100bn less every year, or £40bn less for public services).”
We’ve also been diminished in the eyes of the world. Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary has claimed that Brexit was a “historic economic error”. The lies spun, the trashing of legal agreements, the pursuance of embarrassing post-Brexit trade deals where we’ve given away more than we’ve gained – why should we accept that we have to wait another ten years or more to repair this damage?
Polarised but also politicised
I am fully behind Peter Corr when he says that the campaign will continue until the UK is back in the EU. Of course, I’m angry and disappointed that there will be none of our political leaders joining us on 23 September. I feel furious with Starmer for leaving us with no political home, but other leaders and inspirational role models have filled the vacuum, such as Alistair Campbell (I love the podcast he does with another pro-European Rory Stewart); Phil Moorhouse (who knew Scunthorpe could produce such an informed, politically astute, entertaining star?); Gina Miller (such brave perseverance, including building a new rejoin EU party); and Carol Vorderman (my mother’s fave on Countdown has re-invented herself – people are full of surprises!).
Our society may be more polarised because of the destruction and division the Tories have been heaping upon us, but we are, I’d argue, more politicised too, Leavers and Remainers alike. The rise of alternative media such as The New European and even our own Bylines network was a response to the defeat in the Brexit referendum. We will be going into subsequent campaigns better mobilised, more informed.
An actual Brexit benefit
There is now a mine of information gathered by pro-Europeans about public attitudes and what messages hit home in the argument for re-joining the EU. For example, we know a vague public concern about ‘immigration’ was exploited by the Leave campaign. Since Brexit, however, people think more positively about immigration (now there’s a Brexit Benefit!).
In 2012, just 24 per cent agreed with the statement ‘Immigrants’ skills and labour are necessary to help Britain’s economic recovery’. In 2022 that figure had risen to 53 per cent as the myth equating immigration with welfare tourism has been challenged. This shift of attitude can be harnessed in the fight for the restoration of our freedom of movement. Freedom of movement, that is the rights of goods and services, investment and workers to move freely across borders, would follow if we stayed out of the EU but returned to the single market.
Banging on about Brexit
We must keep banging on about the damage to trade and the economic harms of Brexit, as it is these that are felt by all of us. Holiday chaos at airports and ferry terminals, expensive European pet travel, restrictions on our children’s abilities to work as au pairs and in French ski chalets may well wind up the more privileged of us, but such concerns cut no ice with families struggling to make ends meet.
YouGov’s latest figures show that 73 per cent of Leavers would still vote to leave the EU, and it is this statistic which informs Starmer’s refusal to acknowledge the act of self-harm that is Brexit. But the UK could join something akin to the single market (with the benefits of mutual freedom of movement) without Brexit betrayal.
There are beginning to be incremental piecemeal negotiations with Europe, for example, the government has just agreed a bespoke deal with the EU to rejoin the scientific research programme Horizon. Hopefully the Erasmus scheme will be next. In the meantime, I will do what I can to represent the 60 per cent who now want to rejoin the EU.
Please join me on Saturday 23 September for the second National Rejoin March. Let our voices be heard.