Thousands Demand Second Brexit Vote at London March

(Bloomberg) -- People from across the U.K. gathered on a sunny Saturday afternoon in London to take part in what may be the biggest public protest over Brexit since the referendum in 2016.

The march, which organizers estimated drew 700,000 people to west London’s Park Lane, was called by People’s Vote, a group that’s campaigning for the public to have a say on any final Brexit deal, so that the ruling Conservative government can’t force it through Parliament.

“We believe Brexit can be stopped,” Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrat party, said in a speech during the march, which included a rally across the street from the Houses of Parliament. “Only the people can resolve this mess.”

Thousands Demand Second Brexit Vote at London March

A summit of European Union leaders in Brussels this week, which was slated to be the meeting at which an exit agreement would be struck, instead ended with major hurdles still to be overcome. As the March 29, 2019 deadline for Britain to officially leave the EU draws ever closer, the twists and turns in negotiations have the general public divided, investors and businesses anxious and the volatile pound weaker.

“Some of the promises made two years ago, clearly have not materialized,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a video on the group’s website before the march. “Nobody was talking about a bad Brexit deal, nobody was talking about no deal whatsoever. The British public should have a say on whether they accept the outcome of those negotiations, with the option of staying in the EU.”

Fierce Debate

In a video shown at the event, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her Scottish National Party supports a people’s vote. “There’s no deal, none, that provides all of the same benefits as EU membership,” she said.

The U.K. and EU have missed several deadlines to forge a divorce agreement, reinforcing the stance of so-called hard Brexiteers who argue that crashing out of the EU without a deal is preferable to yielding to the bloc’s demands. Pro-EU campaigners argue that the British public has been misled with false promises, and that a hard Brexit will leave everyone worse off.

Participants in the march, who included teenagers to the elderly, chanted, “Hey Hey Theresa May, give us all a final say” as they walked along the route through central London. Marchers held up banners suggesting they came from all corners of the country, while others were Spanish, French and Italian.

Brexit Fears

The negotiations so far have been “full of incompetence by the British government,” said one protester, Julie Sirvent, 35, a French national who works in oil and gas project management and has lived in the U.K. since 2014. “It’s been appalling how badly it’s being handled. I think I am at the point that anything I can do, so that the people have the final say, I will do it.”

Thousands Demand Second Brexit Vote at London March

Another protester, Jeremy, who declined to give his second name, said he feared Brexit would turn out to be a “disaster” for Britain.

“We all want what’s best for this country and we are the true patriots,” he said. “I just don’t see the point. It’s almost like losing your biggest trading partner to go and start trading completely on your own. You know, you’ve gone from having a deal with somebody like Tesco to being a corner shop.”

Prime Minister May is now said to be ready to drop one of her key Brexit demands on the contentious issue of the Irish border to clear the path to a deal, according to people familiar with the matter.

Until now, May has insisted that a legal guarantee to ensure no new border emerges on the island of Ireland should be strictly limited in time, to avoid delaying the U.K.’s departure and to ensure the country is free from EU customs rules to strike its own trade deals.

But the EU has rejected her stance and talks have been stuck for months, and now May and her team of Brexit advisers accept the EU’s point that it must be open-ended, for an “enduring” solution, one of the people said. The proposal is for the whole U.K. to stay tied to EU customs rules as a so-called backstop -- or guarantee clause.

While the proposal may be welcomed by the EU and businesses, May’s compromise may mean that Britain would end up bound indefinitely to the EU’s customs rules, which could spark a revolt within May’s own cabinet and throw her political future into doubt.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.