The Pro EU Conference took place on 24th October, at the QE11 Conference Centre, London and was organised by four pro-EU organisations: Britain for Europe, European Movement, Scientists for EU and Healthier IN.
Ten members of the St Albans for Europe group attended, along with about 500 people who attended as individuals or as members of other groups from all over the UK. We heard some great speakers, mixed and mingled and were generally encouraged that we can Stop Brexit. Speakers came from various political parties, a reminder, as we were told, that this is not a 'political' but a 'personal' movement, responding on many levels to the EU Referendum outcome.
All the MPs who spoke (David Lammy, Dominic Grieve, Caroline Lucas and Wera Hobhouse) pretty well sang from the same song sheet. We were informed that knowledge within Parliament of the workings of the EU was scant. Each of these three key players said that many MPs knew that the 'Brexit Nonsense' (Lammy) was deeply divisive and potentially a disaster, but were reluctant to speak up, having one eye on their constituents or their political future. This was indeed disheartening to hear, but each of these four MPs offered something positive:
For Lammy, it was to keep the faith. Grieve flagged up the importance of public opinion, and how a sea-change could lead to an alternative outcome from the 'cliff-edge' currently on offer. Lucas focused on the constitutional outrage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and stressed the importance of FoM (Freedom of Movement) and the overwhelming force for good that is the EU. Hobhouse's words were encouraging and inspirational. She reminded us that but for her endorsement by the Bath for Europe group, and their work in promoting her, she might never have been elected. She, too spoke of her shock at the ignorance of many MPs and told us to take the message out to people we know. 'Politicians will follow' was her ringing cry of endorsement to action.
As well as these MPs, we also heard from Ian Dunt, editor of politics.co.uk, who felt that a shift in opinion was now occurring as more facts were coming to light. He urged us to focus on those who were 'soft' leavers, and remind them of what we had in common: that Brexit is a mess, and that what we are being offered was not what we expected when we voted (on whatever side). Dunt suggested focusing upon one or two key issues, rather than vague concepts like sovereignty, which are not well understood like, for example how our new status in Europe, post-Brexit, would put at risk the availability of cancer drugs – not something that was discussed ahead of the EU Referendum but a real concern for us all. We also heard from Quentin Peel, ex Financial Times journalist and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He felt that the timescale currently being pursued was impossible, and that the clock needed to be stopped. He also felt that the key player on the EU stage was Macron, not Merkel. His opinion was that there were only two viable options: No deal or remaining in the EU as a full member.
Local groups also reported back, saying what worked for them, and giving us the benefit of their experiences as local campaigners in various very different locations. The message coming across clearly was the importance of social media as a disseminating tool, the need to 'tone down' some of the approaches (a few Union Jacks mingled with the EU flag worked well in Manchester) and the need to build locally and target Leave areas. Drip feeding was also the key - just as the drip feeding of EU hatred has happened over the preceding decades, so we now need to counter this, perhaps by showing exactly what good things the EU has achieved in our area. It was also important to set objectives, and work out how they could be achieved and measured.
During the day, we managed to lobby our MPs Anne Main (St Albans) and Bim Afolami (Hitchin & Harpenden. The St Albans constituency group lobbied on three areas: Citizens rights (both EU in UK and UK in EU); Retaining membership of Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community); giving parliament a meaningful vote over the outcome of negotiations including the right to Remain if the deal is not good enough.
The day in bullet points
1. The Government is slowly realising what has happened, but fear is holding many MPs back from admitting it.
2. We need to be focused and 'empathetic' in our approach. Trench warfare wins nothing.
3. Identify and stress what we have in common with Leavers at all times.
4. Use FACTS not waffly concepts in our debate. Focus upon one or two issues we can all agree on.
5. There is a sea-change happening, but it needs to be greater, sustained, and more transparent.
6. Brexit is impossible to deliver. We must keep up the pressure on our MPs at all times.
Photo credit: Liz Needham