“No to no deal madness!” An extraordinary protest with a serious message

Thursday 8October saw ordinary people across the country taking part in the European Movement’s ‘No to no deal’ campaign. Established in the aftermath of World War Two by Winston Churchill, the European Movement is the UK’s longest standing pro-European organisation with a network of over 100 local groups. Their latest campaign is the most urgent one yet: standing up within our communities to say ‘No’ to a no deal Brexit.

Talks between the EU and the UK are at a critical point with an agreement on trade, the Northern Ireland border, security arrangements and a plethora of other issues needed by mid-November at the latest to ensure ratification. The noises coming from both sides have not been positive for months. As the deadline fast approaches, the UK is yet again facing the alarming prospect of leaving the EU single market and customs area with no ongoing trading arrangements in place.

Government rhetoric has long played down the destructive consequences of a no deal – no deal, no problem! But the reality is that the shock of a no deal Brexit will be painfully sharp with an immediate risk of long customs border queues leading to shortages of food, medicines and fuel, and inevitable hikes in prices.  Although supermarkets and pharmacies had prepared for last year’s no deal threat by stockpiling essential products, that contingency stock was used up in the early days of Europe’s Covid-19 lockdown when cross-border trade was restricted. There is no back-up now, no safety net. And the victims of the shortages and chaos to come will be each and every one of us. And in the middle of a pandemic to boot!

This is why the campaign group, Dorset for Europe, decided to hold a socially distanced protest in Bournemouth to call attention to the looming no deal catastrophe. Wearing masks with faces of a grimacing Dominic Cummings and a fretful-looking Boris Johnson, about ten of us marched from the town hall to the main square carrying ‘No to no deal’ placards, chanting “No to no deal madness!”.

Organising a protest in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis is not straightforward. Dorset for Europe treasurer, Sarah Cowley, was instrumental in ensuring that we followed current coronavirus safety precautions. Protests are exempt from the government’s ‘Rule of six’ law so long as they are called by a specific organisation and a risk assessment has been carried out based upon the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), which we duly did. Sarah had hand sanitiser on tap, and fellow colleague, Conor Niall O’Luby, was in charge of keeping us in ‘socially distanced’ line!

Of all the protests that I have attended, this will go down in my mind as the most bizarre and comical of all. Seeing each other in the Johnson–Cummings masks was unsettling enough, but having to stay at a 2-metre distance felt as alien as it did (sadly) familiar. Bemused onlookers stopped to stare, some to take photos or record us on their phones, while some clapped. My overriding memory will be of the town hall security guard chuckling and speaking into his radio. No one came out to move us on. He must have told the powers that be that we were a harmless bunch, and obeying the Covid-19 distancing rules to the letter.

So was this small protest worth it, on a quiet Thursday lunchtime? Some accuse us of shouting into the void, saying Brexit is done, and asking what groups like Dorset for Europe can actually achieve. Well, I would say two things. First, it is essential to get the message across that the prospect of a no deal Brexit has not gone away: the risks to the UK’s supply chains are very real and we will all suffer the consequences. We need as many people as possible to write to their MP demanding that this government secure the ‘oven-ready’ agreement that Johnson promised in the 2019 election.

Second – and perhaps of greatest importance in the long-run – we must keep standing up for the values that we hold dear: liberal democracy, freedom of movement, the rule of law, free speech, human rights, government accountability, environmental standards, animal welfare and food standards and so on. Yes, the UK has indeed left the European Union, but the challenges we face as a country are far bigger than Brexit. When this reckless, morally vacant government threatens to break international law, deport asylum seekers to a far-away volcanic island and play with its own citizens’ food and medicine security, then we must stand up and say ‘enough’. There is no choice.

The European Movement’s day of action against a no deal Brexit on 8 October culminated in a virtual rally which over 10,000 attended across YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. In these darkest of times, my only consolation is knowing that I am not alone in continuing to fight for our close ties with Europe, our values and our rights.

Please sign the European Movement’s ‘No to no deal’ petition, and write to your MP to stress the necessity of a comprehensive UK–EU deal. Every voice matters, and this really is our last chance to stop no deal madness.

Lucy-Ann Pope is joint secretary of Dorset for Europe