Over a million people attended the Put it to the People march in London last Saturday asking for another chance to vote on Brexit. The tone was fiercely anti-Brexit and there was even healthy number of brave souls who had voted Leave in 2016 and have since changed their minds. At the same time a petition to revoke Article 50 was rapidly attracting more signatures than any of its kind before it. While a small majority of people voted for the UK to leave the European Union in June 2016, it would seem that pro-European sentiment in the country has never been higher.
It is no secret that the UK has always been rather unsure about its relationship with the EU; it was the Tories that took us into the then EC in 1973 and at the time the Labour Party, under Harold Wilson, was deeply divided over the UK’s membership. In fact the first referendum asking the public whether the UK should remain in the EU or not took place during Wilson’s premiership, in 1975, after the party made it a pledge in their manifesto ahead of the October 1974 election, which they went on to win (sound familiar?).
Conservative party division over Europe led to the creation of UKIP and the party almost splitting over it at the end of the 1990s. David Cameron promised an in/out referendum in his 2010 election manifesto, which is commonly understood to have come about simply to mend the divide in his party. The Labour Party, under Neil Kinnock then Tony Blair, took on a much more pro-European stance, changing again when Corbyn took it back to its more socialist roots in 2015. So it is hardly surprising then that a country, whose leaders have never been in accordance, or taken a strong lead over Europe, is also deeply divided over the issue.
When I worked as an assistant to a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and was studying European Politics at university at the end of the ‘90s and early 2000s all things European were inevitably at the centre of my world and everyone else’s around me. However, I soon realised that beyond my circle of Brussels friends and fellow students, the EU was probably the least important thing in most people’s lives. I would get frustrated at others’ lack of knowledge over the workings of the European Parliament and Commission and would do everything in my power not to wallop anyone who mentioned straight bananas and bendy cucumbers (or whichever way round it was).
Then came the referendum. While half the population still believed what the papers told them or what a few politicians dreamt up about millions being spent on the NHS and every last immigrant (EU or otherwise) being sent back home, for the other half (ish), never has the EU felt so much love from the UK. Since Brexit appeared in our lives, pro-European citizens in the UK have crawled out of the woodwork. The EU’s 12 yellow stars adorn thousands of Facebook profile pictures and a quick internet search of EU paraphernalia brings up endless websites from Ebay to Etsy, selling stuff manufactured in China to quirky hand crafted items, all allowing the buyer to embrace their new found love affair through heartfelt declarations of love on t-shirts, berets, flags and badges, things like “I love EU”, “Bremainer” and “Fromage not Farage.”
Where oh where have these people been for the last 46 years? Why couldn’t this passionate pro-European sentiment have been so strong before June 2016? What were they afraid of? Why has it taken Brexit for the country to fall madly in love with the EU? There has never been straightforward, factual information easily available or taught to British citizens. For years not even politicians have been able to make up their minds. No wonder the result of the referendum was what it was. But now it looks like it might be too late. As Europe puts the clocks forward for summer this weekend, it looks as though it’s impossible for the UK to turn back time. On the upside, half of the UK has finally fallen in love with Europe.