In the aftermath of the UK’s departure from the EU on 31 January, one of the key groups behind the failed campaign for a second referendum is launching a drive to keep the pro-European message alive in post-Brexit Britain.
The European Movement’s Brexit Watch initiative is designed to gather evidence of how EU withdrawal is affecting communities around the country, with the aim of making the government and the Leave campaign take responsibility for the consequences of their policies.
As negotiations begin on the future relationship with the EU, the movement’s chair Stephen Dorrell told The Independent that the priority is not to pick over the reasons for Remain’s defeat or dream of a far-off return to the EU, but to ensure that Boris Johnson’s government is challenged to justify itself each time it takes a decision to deviate away from European values and norms.
The cross-party movement — founded by Winston Churchill and with Michael Heseltine as its president — has experienced a mini-surge in membership in the wake of Brexit, as 2,000 pro-Europeans responded to a call to show that “we haven’t gone away”.
With Brexit having occurred amid opinion polls showing majorities wanting to remain in the EU – and after an election in which a majority of voters backed parties offering a second referendum – Mr Dorrell said that millions of Britons who see themselves as European have been denied a voice in a political system where both major parties have lurched to the extremes.
Championing the common interests and common values the UK shares with the EU will be “a key part of bringing the centre back into British politics”, said the former Conservative cabinet minister.
And, while acknowledging that rejoining the EU is a long way off for the UK, Mr Dorrell suggested that the “nationalist and protectionist” mood represented by the Johnson government may not last as long as some expect.
“For the first time since the Second World War we have a trade policy of erecting barriers to trade,” he said. “It goes against a British tradition and belief stretching back to the early years of the 19th century that open markets and level playing fields for competition are part of the process of wealth creation.
“I don’t believe it will endure, any more than Trumpian values can endure in America.
“If the question is, ‘Are we going to reverse the referendum?’, then certainly we will only get the answer I would like when a generation has passed. But if the question is, ‘Is there a more effective version of the future than Boris Johnson is offering?’, then that’s something we can put on the agenda as soon as the next election comes around.”
Pro-Europeans must be ready – both inside and outside parliament – to question each decision taken by the government as it forges new relations with the EU, the US and other powers, over whether UK interests would be better served by sticking with common European interests and values, he said.
In the aftermath of a general election that delivered a landslide for Mr Johnson’s “get Brexit done” platform, Mr Dorrell and EM chief executive Hugo Mann acknowledged that pro-European forces were “demoralised”.
But just one of the group’s 126 branches around the country has shut down, and the movement now counts 120,000 supporters and 7,000 paid-up members.
“We start from the principle that we are British Europeans,” said Mr Dorrell. “Despite Brexit, we are still just 22 miles off the French coast. This is our neighbourhood. At a time of climate emergency, it is blindingly obvious that the British climate is the same as the European climate. When we face the spread of coronavirus, the threat is the same for us as for our European friends.
“In a world where Donald Trump and Narendra Modi are congratulating each other for representing a set of values that don’t resonate anywhere in Europe, including in Britain, and where we see the current trends in China and Russia and the Middle East, where in the world do we find a common set of shared values? Overwhelmingly it’s in Europe.
“The EU as an institution is an expression of a set of values which are broadly shared in Britain and distinguish Europe in the modern world.”
Rather than demanding an immediate return to the EU, the single market or the customs union, the EM’s approach in the coming years will be to identify and highlight the impact Brexit has on jobs, communities and livelihoods and to encourage supporters to lobby MPs of all parties for closer engagement with Europe.
“There’s a huge constituency who voted Remain and their voice is simply not represented – definitely not by the government and, it seems, probably not by a Keir Starmer-led opposition,” said Mr Dorrell, who stood as a Liberal Democrat in the December election but stresses that EM remains a cross-party movement.
“That doesn’t mean entering the lists to argue for Rejoin. It means arguing for the common European interests and common European values that still exist now and will still be there in 2030 and 2040.”
Mr Mann added: “As a movement we want to hold the government’s feet to the fire now Brexit has happened. It feels like Johnson has a hold on the narrative now, but as we see the Brexit myths combusting in front of us over the coming months and years, we want to be there to remind the government of their promises.
“Brexit hasn’t been done. If this was a computer game, we have got to the end of level one and level two is the hard bit.”
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