Text by:Tom WHEELDON
The divide between the Remain and Leave camps has dominated national discourse, and they showed no sign of coming together when Brexiteers erupted with joy in Parliament Square in London late Friday as Britain left the EU, while pro-Europeans expressed their dismay in the same square a night earlier.
At a huge rally in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament in London’s ancient heart, minutes before the UK left the EU, Nigel Farage declared that Brexit is the “greatest moment in the modern history of our great nation”. As they popped champagne corks and waved Union Flags, there seemed little doubt that the crowd agreed with the Brexit Party leader, whose virulent opposition to the EU as head of the insurgent UK Independence Party was a key factor in spooking then prime minister David Cameron into calling a referendum.
“I’ve come 12,000 miles for this,” said Jo Holmes, originally from Manchester, who flew over from her home in New Zealand to attend the Brexit celebrations. “Two words: sovereignty and democracy. Today feels like we’ve got both of these things back.”
‘It’s all corruption’
Wearing a red baseball cap exhorting “Bring Back Free Speech” and brandishing a miniature Union Flag, another pro-Brexit demonstrator went further, denouncing the EU as representing the “beginning of totalitarianism”. Pointing to the Houses of Parliament, Michael McFadden said: “That place over there is as corrupt as anything now, and I think it’s all come out of the 47 years we’ve been in the EU – it’s all corruption and dishonesty; that’s what we want out of.”
The notion that the EU is undemocratic was also a factor in motivating David and Christina Whittington to come to Parliament Square to celebrate Brexit. This couple from Essex voted Remain in 2016 but have since changed their minds.
“I voted Remain because I felt like the world was unstable and it wasn’t the right time to leave the EU,” said David. He changed his mind “because of the indignation and outrage of people who voted Remain and couldn’t accept the result”. Then his position changed even more when he “started looking into it and realised how anti-democratic the EU is”.
For Christina, it was a similar process: “Once I saw how Parliament was behaving and how our democracy was being eroded, I became absolutely bloody furious.”
Blaise, a Londoner originally from Poland, voiced an even more disapproving opinion of the EU at the Parliament Square rally: “The EU project is going in the wrong direction – the direction of a federation, taking away the power that individual nations have, trying to create something resembling the Soviet Union,” he said.
The previous night in Parliament Square, it was the Europhiles’ turn to be “absolutely bloody furious”. Before belting out The Who’s ode to rebellion, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, Barbara Garfi said she was “devastated” that Brexit is finally happening. She and her husband Salvatore travelled five hours from their home in Wales to come and protest.
Rejoining the EU is “perhaps not a matter for my generation but perhaps for another generation, although we’ll keep fighting for it”, Barbara said. “Brexit is just a kind of national hysteria that’s occurred,” Salvatore added. “Hopefully it shall pass.”
Katy Treverton has been protesting against Brexit in London since the aftermath of the 2016 referendum result and expressed similar dismay about the UK’s departure from the EU. “I feel sad; I feel disappointed in the country, which I don’t feel like I know anymore,” she said. “I’m a bit heartbroken, really.”
“I feel like the people who voted for Brexit voted against me as well – and what I represent,” added her friend Hazel, who divides her time between the UK and Spain.
‘A matter of egos’
On Friday afternoon, at the “London is Open” event at City Hall – where the regional government offered free legal counselling and emotional support to EU citizens living in the British capital – Lothar from Germany expressed similar sentiments. “I’m upset; I wish I didn’t take [Brexit] personally, but I do.”
“I’ve lived here for thirteen years and I’ve never had a day of unemployment; I’ve been to the doctor’s maybe four times – I feel like I’ve always contributed to the system,” he explained. “In a world in which there’s more and more conflict, it’s just sad that the best and biggest peace project (the EU) failed in the end,” Lothar said.
Riccardo, an Italian attending “London is Open” who has lived in London for nearly five years, said Brexit represents being “against the European project itself”.
“It is an idea in which people from different countries, different backgrounds, come together sharing their values despite their differences – and this is just a rejection of all of that.”
“For me it’s mostly sadness” over the UK’s departure from the EU, said Laura Fernandez, who was outside City Hall with her friend Alba Padules; they have recently moved to London from Spain. The EU is “a project of unity”, Fernandez continued. “It has its flaws, but to say that, ‘We’re not going to work together,’ is kind of sad.”
“I think it’s stupid, but it’s up to them – if they want to leave, then OK,” said Padules. “It’s just up to [the British] to decide how well they want to leave.”
With regard to the brinkmanship from both sides that has characterised Britain’s divorce from the EU, Padules continued: “I think it’s a matter of egos. At some point they have to realise that it doesn’t make any sense if they don’t put aside their egos to actually get to a decent, practical agreement.”
A once harmonious endeavor
With the persistent tension between London and many European capitals that has characterised the UK’s divorce from the EU, the end of Britain’s participation in the European project contrasts with the serenity of its beginning.
In January 1971, the House of Commons accepted the UK’s proposed membership in what was then known as the European Economic Community to quiet public approval – subsequently affirmed by a 75 percent vote to stay in the bloc in 1975. Although industrial strife frustrated domestic politics, the country had little doubt about its future in Europe.
The prime minister of the day was Edward Heath, the last ardent Europhile to lead the Conservative Party. In his youth he witnessed a Nuremberg Rally in Germany before he fought in the Second World War. For Heath, these experiences inspired a yearning for Europe to come together in a spirit of peace. After that transformational parliamentary vote in 1971, he expressed his sentiments by sitting at his harpsichord and playing J.S. Bach’s first prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier to his family and close friends.
“It was saying something about how he felt about being back in Europe,” Sir Robert Armstrong, the country’s most senior civil servant at the time, recounted on the BBC radio. “It was a very moving moment – I still am moved, to think about it,” he said, his voice trembling with emotion.
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