On January 31 2020, the United Kingdom finally completed its four year stint as the European Union’s most miserable member, and exited from the political and economic union it had been a part of since 1975. Although we are currently in a transition period, with an unknown end point, this was a decisive move in the process of our total detachment from the EU.
But, the pro-Remainers among us did not simply go away. Over at the Sheffield for Europe Facebook page, far from going inactive after the UK had officially left the EU, members continued to post. But what exactly was their aim? And, what could they hope to achieve now, in a country that had not only left the union, but had recently voted for a pro-Brexit government? As it turned out, Sheffield for Europe had many reasons for their lasting commitment to the EU, as I found out in discussions with its members.
For many in the group, this commitment came from a strong moral imperative. This was certainly the case for Mary Seneviratne, the Chair of Sheffield for Europe. She said: “It has been very much grassroots. Come from the bottom up. There’s nobody at the top who says you know, we must form groups, we must fight this. It is a sense that’s bubbling up from below.”
Helen Hammond, a retired dentist, felt very passionate about their right to speak out about their beliefs. She said: “I think it’s important that people still maintain an opinion about it if they feel strongly, and I don’t think we should be made to feel that we’re in the wrong, to feel like that, because it is supposed to be a democracy.”
Briggitte Delaney, a Health Services Researcher who is also part of the teaching team at the University of Sheffield Medical School, shared similar feelings.
She said: “They can shut one person up, but they can’t shut up however many thousands or hundreds of thousands, so it does enable you to feel like you’re not a lone voice in the wilderness.”
I can either just sit back and watch it and totally succumb to depression, and feel completely helpless and powerless. Or I can get out there and do something about it
For John, who works in the NHS, the group brought about mixed feelings for him. He said: “It’s very quickly draining, so I’m sure there’s people with more conviction than me that will continue the fight, but I think at some point you just have to accept it, and see what happens. But I hate the idea of doing that as well, because I fundamentally think it’s an awful idea.”
Many focused too on more practical concerns, with a focus on influencing the deal we would eventually leave the European Union with.
Vikki Appleton, a retired graphic designer, said: “If the opposition just folds, it’s much easier for the government to implement all kinds of stupid stuff, and scary stuff.”
Vikki, who is an American citizen, voiced particular concern that without opposition, Boris Johnson would simply follow in the footsteps of Donald Trump. She said: “Undermining democracy; going after the judges because they quote unquote interfere. So there’s a job to do of keeping an eye on that and keeping them to account.”
Vikki also talked of the role the group had in helping EU migrants in the UK, something that Mary Seneviratne also emphasised.
She said: “We’ll carry on and we have little campaigns, like fighting for EU citizens in this country, so they can remain and they are made to feel welcome.”
Helen Hammond also spoke of this. She said: “I get the feeling that the Sheffield for Europe and the other groups, they are trying to find ways of improving, perhaps say, status of foreigners, who are working here and feel lonely and got at, and trying to make positive things out of it.”
For Dutch native Joey Knockx, who works for a restaurant in Hillsborough, the group certainly gave him a welcoming feeling. He said: “It’s nice to know that there are Dutch people out there too.” He also liked how the group was bringing people together, both online and in the various meet-ups for members of Sheffield for Europe.
For many, Sheffield for Europe was an important tool in the campaign to rejoin the EU.
When addressing whether rejoining should be the priority so soon after leaving, Briggitte Delaney said: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting that idea out there, that actually it’s not out with the realms of reality that we will rejoin again.”
Meanwhile, Vikki Appleton spoke of the long-term strategies Sheffield for Europe needed to be using, on what she saw was a long road to rejoining. She said: “One of our jobs we need to do it, to counter those kind of things when people in power are saying ‘oh this is the fault of the EU.’”
Everyone mentioned the concern and fear they felt for the UK after Brexit. John spoke of the xenophobia and racism Brexit had encouraged, and said: “It emboldens people, I think in some cases, and I feel like we’ve opened a bit of a Pandora’s box, and I think there’s going to be quite a few dark years coming up.” Joey Knockx meanwhile expressed his concern for the NHS, and Briggitte Delaney spoke of parallels to the 1930s in the UK’s post-Brexit political discourse.
Despite these fears, most expressed hope for the future. Mary spoke of the inevitable demographic changes in the years to come and said: “Somebody once said to me, where there’s death there’s hope, because of the age profile, and that will make the change eventually.”
Vikki meanwhile turned the negatives into a positive call to arms. She said: “I can either just sit back and watch it and totally succumb to depression, and feel completely helpless and powerless. Or I can get out there and do something about it.”
For all members of Sheffield for Europe I spoke to, the emotional and the practical were closely interwoven together. Impassioned calls for democracy and free speech were accompanied by the distinct need to find a togetherness, in a country now so obsessed with otherness.