The Dreamers Doubts about Brexit on the Rise in Britain
It has often been said that Brexit means Brexit. But does it? With Prime Minister Theresa May showing weakness and the negotiations dragging, some are hoping that Britain's departure from the EU can be warded off.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Bedfordshire is an extremely British institution. For the past 128 years it has dedicated itself to protecting endangered species such as the black-legged kittiwake, great crested grebe and the wood warbler. And now the society, with a membership of 1 million, has another mission: stopping Brexit.
That at least, is the proposal from Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister and one-time leader of the Liberal Democrats, who is regarded as one of the most prominent pro-Europeans in the United Kingdom.
The 50-year-old has just published a 140-page handbook for civil disobedience, entitled "How to Stop Brexit." He suggests that those who want to prevent the UK from exiting the European Union should join an existing large organization and persuade the other members that Brexit is a man-made disaster heading right for them. Bird enthusiasts, architectural conservationists and other volunteers and members of charities form a "ready-made army" of allies and supporters waiting to be mobilized, he writes in his manifesto.
Has he gone mad? Not at all. In fact, Clegg is just one of many prominent people working to stop the runaway train that is Brexit. Something that was unthinkable just a few months ago is now being discussed openly: Reversing Britain's decision to exit the EU.
For the time being, they are just individual voices of opposition, but they are coming from all parties and groups in society. And they are making their pro-Brexit adversaries increasingly nervous. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently voiced their concerns in a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May in which they said the government was not pursuing Brexit energetically enough. May, they insisted, had to do everything she could to make Great Britain "a fully independent self-governing country by the time of the next election." There followed a list of demands, as though it was a ransom note from hostage takers rather than a memo from members of her cabinet. It's no surprise that the supposedly secret missive was leaked. Another euro-skeptic, the UKIP politician Nigel Farage, has even gone so far as to warn pro-Europeans in the government against committing "treason."
A 'Political Decision'
Ahead of the crucial EU summit in mid-December, the lines are hardening in British politics. There's less talk of "soft," "hard," "extreme," or "glorious" Brexits. Instead it is now a choice between a full Brexit with all the ensuing consequence or no Brexit at all. Both sides are making their positions clear. And caught in the middle is Theresa May. No one can be sure if the besieged prime minister has the strength to really lead the country. And the fact that the EU has effectively given her an ultimatum to come up with 60 billion euros as part of the Brexit settlement doesn't exactly make her position any more comfortable.
Sign up for our newsletter -- and get the very best of SPIEGEL in English sent to your email inbox twice weekly.
Earlier this month, Lord John Kerr gave a speech not far from Downing Street in which he explained that Brexit was reversible. "At any stage, we can change our minds if we want to", he told the assembled guests. The 75-year-old former diplomat should know. After all, the former UK ambassador to the EU was one of the authors of Article 50, the clause in the European treaties that allows a member state to leave the union.
Kerr said that the government was misleading the British people regarding Article 50, with May acting as if Brexit was irreversible from the moment she told the European Commission in March 2017 that Britain was leaving. "It is always possible at a later stage to decide that we want to do something different," he said. To claim the opposite was a "political decision." His intervention left the hardline Brexiteers in the Conservative Party seething.
It shows that on the pro-Leave side, nerves are on edge, according to Clegg. The Brexit campaign has repeatedly resorted to false promises, he said. "They have lied and they are still lying. Their narcissism won't allow them to admit mistakes," he told DER SPIEGEL.
Clegg, on the other hand, has had no other choice but to confront his own mistakes. In 2010, he was one of the most talented and popular politicians in the country. But that was destroyed by his decision to lead the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives. Five years later, he was severely punished by the electorate for that government's brutal austerity policies. He stepped down as party leader and then, in this June's snap election, he lost his seat. He is now an author and speaker, but in his office in South London, he still exudes the self confidence that brought him to the upper echelons of the British political system. He isn't done with politics and wants to use his influence to reverse what he sees as the most disastrous decision of recent British history.
Brexit is too important to leave to a Conservative Party which is increasingly spirally into chaos, he argues. And Boris Johnson should not be in a position of power. The foreign secretary has openly backed leaving the EU with no deal if the other member states do not give in to British demands. That, Clegg says, would be a catastrophe for Britain.
"Johnson's ego is so insatiable that he would prefer to drive the car into the wall than make any kind of compromise," Clegg says. That is why it is so important to make it clear to the British that it's still possible to stop Brexit, he continues.
Door Is Still Open
And there's a growing number of Brexit opponents who share this view. Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister, said recently that Britain could reach a "crisis point" by next summer. He suggested that there could be "scope for a reassessment," as people begin to realize that many of the Leave campaign's promises cannot be fulfilled. Those within May's own party who oppose Brexit are also becoming more vociferous. The Daily Telegraph featured 15 Conservative rebels last week on its front page beneath the headline: "The Brexit Mutineers."
Activists are now planning a social media campaign in which young people are asked to call their grandparents to warn them about the dangers of Brexit. They are following the example of the Irish "Ring a Granny" campaign that formed part of the successful push for equal marriage in that country in 2015.
Many of these "Remainers" feel emboldened by the steady stream of politicians in the other 27 member states who have said that Britain could still change its mind. One of the most prominent is Donald Tusk of Poland, the president of the European Council, who said in late October that it was now "up to London how this will end, with a good deal, no deal or no Brexit." He also quoted John Lennon: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."
For the British government and its cheerleaders in the tabloid press, these are dangerous signals. Even before Brexit has become a reality, it is increasingly clear that it will cause serious damage to the British economy. The business community is fast losing patience and has demanded a recognizable plan by the end of the year. They say they cannot continue to delay decisions on whether to relocate some of their operations outside of the UK, though several banks have already made the decision and shifted many jobs away from London.
'The Will of the People'
But the Brexit hardliners in the government are sticking to their guns. The people have spoken, they insist. And the "will of the people" expressed in the June 2016 referendum has to be respected no matter what. Any attempt to torpedo the decision of the 52 percent of voters would be "undemocratic."
The response from Labour politician Chuka Umunna, one of the most Europhile members of parliament, is that the British people were lied to. "You can't tell people they are getting a new Audi with all the extras and then, after they sign on the dotted line, deliver a piece of junk and claim a deal is a deal." Umunna is convinced that if the British public had known in the summer of 2016 what they know now, they would never have voted for Brexit.
But it's hard to tell from the current polls. On the one hand, there's a growing number of people who are not happy with the way the government is handling - or rather, not handling - Brexit. On the other hand, there is no majority for another referendum. And if there were to be a new vote, it would likely still be extremely close.
Among those who backed Leave, almost two-thirds are prepared to accept "significant damage" to the economy in the event of Brexit. Meanwhile, 20 percent of those who wanted to stay in the EU would be happy to see Brexit end in chaos in order "to teach a lesson" to the other side.
One completely confusing survey found that a significant majority of British people wanted to essentially remain EU citizens after Brexit, with all the rights to travel and work wherever they want in the European Union.
Some people, it would seem, still don't fully understand the implications of their country's decision.