With less than 48 hours to go before Britain votes on whether to remain a member of the EU, tempers are frayed in Leicester as the “Remain” campaign struggles to move the Brexit debate beyond the divisive issue of immigration.
Leicester in the East Midlands grabbed international headlines last month when its football team won the English Premiership against all the odds. The city is run by a Labour-dominated city council that overwhelmingly wants the UK to remain in the European Union, and its two Labour MPs are also pro-EU.
But “Remain” campaigners canvassing shoppers at lunchtime in the city centre were having a tough time making a convincing case to stay.
Despite their argument that it is in the UK’s economic best interests to remain in the bloc, many of the passersby, even in a city where half the population is not ethnically British, fear unchecked immigration above all.
The frustration at EU institutions, the workings of which most people do not fully understand, is palpable. Most do not know who their elected representatives are at the European Parliament. Many are worried and have no idea what to expect, no matter what Britain decides on Thursday.
The region’s European member of parliament, Glennis Willmott (one of four MEPs for the East Midlands), is head of the British Labour Party’s group in Brussels.
FRANCE 24 met Willmott under the statue of Simon De Montfort, the 13th century Earl of Leicester who led the Baron’s Revolt and founded England’s first parliament. He is considered by some to be the father of Western democracy – especially here in Leicester.
“What we do, and what the EU really means for people, can be incredibly difficult to explain,” Willmott admitted, while blasting what she called a “divisive ‘Leave’ campaign” that has focused on immigration.
A controversial campaign poster unveiled last week by the leader of the anti-Europe United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, showed a line of refugees at the Croatian border with Slovenia under the words “Breaking Point”. Willmott called the image “disgusting”.
“The ‘Leave’ campaign’s obsession with immigration, and this poster in particular, has set one group in our society against the other,” she said.
She went on to describe the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by suspect Thomas Mair, believed to be a far-right sympathiser, as “something none of us thought could ever happen”.
“This divisiveness is going to have a lasting impact on our society. Whatever the result on Friday, a lot of people are going to be upset and angry. We are going to have a tough job healing these wounds.”
Willmott insisted that the EU’s institutions were a force for good, pointing out initiatives such as the 2003 European Working Time Directive – which guaranteed all EU workers paid leave for the first time – and laws forcing pharmaceutical companies to publish the results of clinical trials, even unsuccessful ones, as evidence that the EU was benefiting everyone.
“As MEPs we are constantly pushing for more scrutiny, more transparency – and we are making progress that improves lives,” she said.
“I know people distrust the European Commission, have little faith in the European Parliament, believe that Brussels is polluted by lobbyists working in the interests of big business. But this is the same in any democracy. The EU is not perfect and it needs to be reformed, but we can’t improve it if we are not in it.”
She also emphasised that leaving the EU – the world’s largest single market with 500 million consumers – would be economic suicide for the UK.
She pointed out that Toyota, which has a manufacturing plant in nearby Derby, wrote to all of its employees on Monday urging them to vote "Remain".
“Ninety percent of their exports go directly to the EU,” Willmott said. “If Britain votes to leave, Toyota won’t quit the UK overnight, but customers in Europe are not going to want to pay the inevitable tariffs on cars imported from outside the EU.”
Willmott added that exports from the East Midlands last year were worth £8.8 billion, going mainly to the EU. Leicester itself had benefited from some £350 million in arts, culture and redevelopment funding in the last five years.
“If we leave, we will lose much of that and the UK will be badly hurt,” she said. “It will be a disaster for us and a disaster for the rest of Europe.”
‘Because I’m British’
In the city centre, passersby talking to canvassers were visibly frustrated. Social worker Jyoti Patel said that although she was voting to remain, she was “absolutely petrified” that the “Leave” camp could win and that no one, herself included, had any idea of the long-term consequences of such a move.
“We have not been properly informed, we don’t know what the consequences will be, and the ‘Leave’ campaign has not spelled out how we will actually benefit,” she said. “I’m terrified that we are about to shoot ourselves in the foot.”
When asked about the economic argument, a former soldier who gave his name only as Peter told FRANCE 24 the economic argument would not sway him from voting “Leave”.
“I don’t care if people lose jobs, I don’t care if the economy goes into recession – I want immigration to stop,” he said, sneering at the “Remain” canvassers handing out their leaflets.
Canvasser Barry Fairbairn, who described himself as “one of the few people in Leicester who doesn’t like football”, said that the debate over Brexit “looks too often like we are deciding which football team to support”.
“It is sad that, when you ask people voting ‘Leave’ why they are doing it, all they say is, ‘Because I’m British’,” he said. “They think they are defending their country from something – something that isn’t their enemy.”
As if on cue, across the square a young Asian man shouted the football chant that made headlines when England supporters clashed with police and rival fans in Marseille at the start of Euro 2016: “F*** off Europe, we’re all voting ‘Out’!”
Date created : 2016-06-21