Mass London protest demands second referendum on Brexit

The march organised by the People’s Vote campaign calls for a new poll to end the political deadlock over Brexit.

Brexit 1 March 2019 [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
Demonstrators called for a vote on the final Brexit deal [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

London, United Kingdom – Hundreds of thousands of people have poured onto the streets of central London asking to have a final say on Britain’s departure from the European Union.

People of all ages from across the political spectrum joined campaigners on Saturday for a “people’s vote” to protest against the government’s handling of Brexit – many of them hoping for a chance to reverse the result of a 2016 referendum, which saw 52 percent of voters opting to leave the bloc.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?” read one placard.

Dubbed “Put It To The People”, the march is organised by the People’s Vote campaign, which includes more than 100 grassroots groups advocating for a public vote on the Brexit deal with the EU, and is supported by a number of pro-European organisations.

Pro-remain MPs from across the political spectrum also attended, while tens of coaches descended on London from across the country. The protesters were also joined by some who flew in in from other EU countries, including from Italy and Ireland.

As the impasse over a way forward continues in Westminster, the original Brexit deadline of March 29 has now been pushed to April 12.

More than three million citizens from other EU countries living in the UK did not have a say in the referendum [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
More than three million citizens from other EU countries living in the UK did not have a say in the referendum [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

‘Uncertainty about our future’

Critics of a second referendum say it would be even more divisive than the first. 

Regret for backing Brexit in Birmingham South-Asian community

In a televised speech on Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May told the British public: “I am on your side.” She reiterated her determination to deliver Brexit and blamed parliament for the deadlock.

Her words sparked a backlash among MPs who have rejected the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the EU twice since January.

An online petition to cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50 went viral the following day. By Saturday morning, it had gathered nearly four million signatures.

“Mrs May has insulted our democracy by insulting our MPs,” said protester Penelope McEwan, a 53-year-old teacher and environmental activist married to a EU citizen. Once the UK is out, she is worried out about what environmental policies the UK will adopt.

“Compared to some of my British friends I’m the lucky one, because I can still go to the rest of Europe if I wanted to,” said Cathrien van Hak, 38, a curator from the Netherlands who was wearing a placard that read, “I won’t settle for settled status.”

“I moved here 13 years ago with the idea of free movement of people and that I could go anywhere in Europe that I wanted,” she added. “It [now] feels like a different country.”

'There is a lot of uncertainty about our future' a demonstrator tells Al Jazeera [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
‘There is a lot of uncertainty about our future’ a demonstrator tells Al Jazeera [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

More than three million citizens from other EU countries living in the UK did not have a say in the 2016 referendum.

Maria Becerra, a veterinarian who is originally from Spain and has lived in the UK for 14 years, joined the demonstration with her British husband and child.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about our future,” the 44-year-old told Al Jazeera. “There is a possibility that we will have to leave this country, but we don’t want to. This is our home,” she added.

“It’s getting to the point where I feel it’s more likely to be successful. I hope in the coming week the people’s vote will get a chance in Westminster,” said Anne Lock, 81, from Bath. “Or revoke Article 50. Why did we vote for something that makes us worst off?”

The last People’s Vote march in October was one of the largest in decades, attracting an estimated 700,000 people.

Extra time

With only days to go before the UK’s scheduled departure date of March 29, EU leaders agreed this week on a dual-deadline mechanism to grant the UK some extra time.

The UK will leave on May 22 if the British parliament passes the deal. If it doesn’t, it will have until April 12 to indicate a way forward, which could include asking for a longer extension and agreeing to hold European Parliament elections.

If the deal is voted down again, the government could hold a series of indicative votes to see where consensus lies in Parliament, and a second referendum could be among the options.

However, Parliament rejected an amendment calling for a second referendum during a series of votes in mid-March.

While the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not take part in the march, the party officially supports a second referendum. It is also mulling over endorsing a plan by two of its backbenchers that would see MPs vote for May’s deal on the condition it is then put to a public vote.

Recent polls have suggested that if there were a second referendum, Britons could vote to remain in the EU.

A snap poll this week found nearly two-thirds of respondents would prefer remaining in the EU over leaving with May’s deal.

More than 100 grassroots groups participated in Saturday's march [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]
More than 100 grassroots groups participated in Saturday’s march [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

If the options were remaining or leaving without a deal, remain would still win but by a smaller margin of 43 percent. Almost half of the respondents said they would support another public vote.

Meanwhile, a “March to Leave” walk organised by former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, considered one of the architects of Brexit, took off from Sunderland last weekend.

A few hundred people began the first leg of a two-week protest due to end in Parliament square on March 29, accusing politicians of “betraying the will of the people” over Brexit.

While Labour supports a “softer Brexit”, including closer economic integration with the EU, the hard Brexit wing in May’s own Conservative Party has been voting down the deal over the so-called backstop – a protocol of the withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland, which they believe would tie the UK to the EU’s trade rules indefinitely.

Alongside Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in 2016.

“In 2016, Northern Ireland wasn’t mentioned and it’s now become what the government calls a major stumbling block,” Doire Finn, the 24-year-old Northern Ireland coordinator of Our Future Our Choice, a youth campaign group supporting the People’s Vote campaign, told Al Jazeera.

The border in the island of Ireland is set to become the only land crossing between the EU and the UK after Brexit.

There are concerns that a no-deal Brexit would have serious consequences for peace in the region, as well as on the lives of residents like Finn who live in the border area. 

“Because I live so close to the border, I don’t like my life or the people who have built lives on a border that is completely frictionless, to be called a stumbling block,” Finn added.

“It’s important that there are Northern Irish people [at the demonstration] to have their voices heard in a more representative way than they are currently in Parliament.”

“Young people in particular are going to have to live with the consequences of Brexit for the longest.”

Source: Al Jazeera