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Why frustrated Rejoiners are going back to the grass roots

Brexit disinterest by national politicians and media is bringing a new approach

Image: The New European

Connie Sweetman stood alone on the steps of St George’s Hall in Liverpool, clutching an EU flag. Originally from Spain, the 70-year-old has lived on Merseyside since 1982. 

Having experienced the end of Franco’s dictatorship, Connie says she knows how wonderful hope and unity feels. They are feelings, she says, that Brexit crushed. 

“It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” she told me. “I felt rejected, lonely, frightened, vulnerable and insulted after the vote. My relationship with Britain changed.” 

Connie was one of around 80 people who gathered in Liverpool on March 23 to take part in a Rejoin march. It was part of a day of events countrywide held under the Day For Rejoin banner. 

Compared to the huge Remain marches of the immediate post-Brexit era, and most recently to the National Rejoin March in London in September, which attracted tens of thousands of people, the numbers were small – scores of people queuing to express their frustration by using ‘Brexitometers’ on street stalls up and down the country, a hundred in a cinema in Leeds to watch an anti-Brexit documentary, others taking part in quizzes and dances in city and town centres.

There was some frustration that the combined effects of all this drew little notice from the traditional press – especially when, on the same weekend, a right wing protest near Downing Street led by actor-turned-political-activist Laurence Fox attracted widespread attention, even if most of it was mocking of Fox’s calls for a boycott of Nike for changing the colours of St George’s flag on the new England football kit while himself wearing a pair of Nike trainers.

But lorry driver Peter Corr, an organiser of both the Rejoin march and Rejoin day, told me: “We’re happy with the numbers and support shown online, with the #DayForRejoin trending on X throughout the day.”

Corr’s speech in Liverpool focused on how Brexit had helped to cause Britain’s rise in inflation, giving the example of how companies are not absorbing the higher wage costs of lorry drivers post-Brexit, which are instead being passed on to people at the supermarket tills.

But he also hinted at the disconnect between mainstream politicians and media ignoring the elephant in the room, and the ordinary people who know that leaving the EU has been a disaster. “People are talking about Brexit but politicians on the doorstep just aren’t connecting the dots for them, either deliberately and dishonestly, or they aren’t even aware of the blindingly obvious staring them in the face,” he said.

No wonder then, that pro-EU campaigns are now focusing on winning grassroots support than on winning over the support of major parties.

Support for rejoining the EU is at an all-time high. Polls in recent months have shown that the majority of people now think Brexit was a mistake, and in a YouGov poll last November, 57% said they wanted Britain to rejoin the EU’s single market. Even 35% of those who voted Leave in 2016 now agreed.

Yet despite surging public support for the rejoin movement and the chaos and wreckage of Brexit being all around us (acutely demonstrated by the convoy of tractors that descended on Westminster on March 25, with farmers calling for an end to the post-Brexit trade deals that have led to substandard imports and inaccurate labelling), Westminster politicians are reluctant to discuss the issue at length.

Sir Ed Davey offered a glimmer of hope when he called for a return to EU free movement in Britain. During the recent Liberal Democrats’ Spring Conference, the party’s leader pledged a “path back” into the EU single market because being at the centre of Europe was “where we belong.”

But in failing to put a date on when the party would wish to seek to rejoin the single market or outline any concrete policies on how it would “restore Britain’s place at the heart of Europe”, Davey’s words were heavy on rhetoric but didn’t inspire much hope for action.

John Gaskell, chair of the SW Surrey branch of the European Movement, which held a Day For Rejoin street stall, told me how there is grassroots support for the movement from members of the Green, Lib Dems and Labour parties, but less so from those parties’ HQs. He also noted how public opposition towards the Rejoin movement seems to be in decline. 

“We encounter much less opposition on the streets than in the early febrile days of Brexit,” said Gaskell.

The European Movement (EM) West London group agrees, with co-chair Bruce Dickson telling me that much of the abuse the campaigners once attracted from Leavers effectively stopped last year. “Our support is snowballing,” he said, yet he remains frustrated that political leaders arereluctant to talk about rejoining.

He added: “Polling shows that nearly all last year Rejoin was supported by 63%, and recently those thinking Brexit a success has plummeted to 13%. So, we have effectively ‘won the argument’ over Brexit. However, with neither Labour nor the Conservatives supporting Rejoin, even with Labour at least looking for more alignment, there isn’t the willpower nor likely votes in pushing it politically.”

With politicians and much of the media failing to talk about the lives Brexit has wrecked, it is not surprising that ordinary people are taking it upon themselves to call out the damage. 

“We need a bold leader to reverse the damage of Brexit and put us back in the EU,” said Rejoiner Connie Sweetman. 

But to achieve that, we need a bold and democratic media to be honest and spell out the damage so that Brexit-shy political leaders are no longer let off the hook

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