By JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) — Britain is due to leave the European Union in just over a year. The country’s main political parties agree that the decision can’t be reversed. But with the U.K. government divided over the direction Brexit should take, pro-EU campaigners are stepping up efforts to make the country change course.
A new anti-Brexit political party, Renew, hopes to mobilize voters disenchanted with the major Conservative and Labour parties, both of whom are committed to taking Britain out of the EU.
Inspired in part by French President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche movement, the party is targeting voters who “feel politically homeless and abandoned,” co-leader Sandra Khadhouri said at a launch event this week.
She said Renew’s message is: “It’s not too late. It’s not a done deal.”
Meanwhile, a bus emblazoned with the alleged economic cost of quitting the bloc began a tour of the country on Wednesday. The crowd-funded bus cites a leaked government estimate of a 5 percent hit to GDP over 15 years to arrive at a figure of 2,000 million pounds ($2.8 billion) a week.
“There is so much new information that has come out about the costs of Brexit,” said Virginia Beardshaw, an organizer of the “Is it Worth It?” bus campaign. “We need to present people with the facts and let them make up their own minds.”
Buses have a surprisingly central place in the Brexit story. During the 2016 EU membership referendum, “leave” campaigners emblazoned a red bus with the claim that the U.K. pays the bloc 350 million pounds a week, money that could instead be spent on the National Health Service.
The figure was inflated — Britain’s net contribution to the bloc is about half that — but it stuck, and many believe it helped swing the referendum in favor of “leave.”
It has been more than 18 months since Britain voted by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the EU after more than 40 years of membership. The government triggered the two-year countdown to departure almost a year ago, and will quit the bloc on March 29, 2019.
But details of the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU remain unclear. How much access will Britain have to the bloc’s single market? Will there be customs checks and tariffs on goods?
Negotiations on future relations are due to start next month, with the goal of reaching broad agreement by the fall, so that EU countries can approve the deal before March 2019.
But Britain’s Conservative government does not have a united position. Ministers are due to meet Thursday in the latest attempt to hammer out a compromise between supporters of “hard Brexit,” who want a clean break with the EU, and those seeking a compromise approach to soften the economic shock of leaving.
“Hard Brexit” supporters flexed their muscle ahead of the meeting, warning Prime Minister Theresa May in a letter not to cave in to EU demands. The letter signed by 62 Conservative lawmakers said Britain must have “full regulatory autonomy” — code for refusal to adopt some EU rules in exchange for access to its programs and market.
Pro-EU campaigners believe the public does not support such a hard-line stance, and think support for Brexit is eroding as the uncertainty goes on.
James Clarke, another leader of Renew, said its message was getting a warm welcome from voters “disenchanted with the traditional parties for being complicit in our current political shambles.” The party hopes to run candidates for all 650 seats in Parliament in the next general election.
But that may not come until 2022, three years after Brexit. And as a party founded by London-based professionals, Renew may struggle to connect with voters in less metropolitan, economically struggling regions where support for Brexit is strongest.
Victoria Honeyman, a politics lecturer at the University of Leeds, said that most people in Britain are “absolutely sick to death” of debates over Brexit and just want the issue to fade into the background.
“Technically we could still stop Brexit,” Honeyman said. “But I don’t see any sense in which that’s going to happen. I think we’ve walked too far down the path.”