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22 June 2016

I can’t imagine life without EU – young, angry voters try to be heard above the Brexit din

The youthful crowd in Trafalgar Square waved EU flags and chalked messages of love for the political superstate on the paving stones.

By Julia Rampen

On Tuesday evening, a crowd began to gather in Trafalgar Square. A hundred or so young people milled around with European Union flags stuck in their hair, or ‘In’ stickers plastered to their cheeks. Those clutching leaflets came from the frontline of the EU referendum campaign, but others simply stood and watched. 

For die-hard politicos, the main attraction of the event was the expected arrival of former Labour leader, Ed Miliband. But most of those I spoke to said they didn’t usually attend political rallies, and for some it was their first time. 

Matthew Beavers, 32, said he was attracted by the positive mood of the demonstration: “For me the EU is something that has always been in my life and I can’t even imagine it not being there. 

“There are a lot of young people who share this feeling, but it is not being communicated.”

Beavers, who spent 10 years living in Germany and has friends all over the continent, believes his parents will vote Remain too, “perhaps because of me”. 

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He wasn’t the one to see the EU as an emotional symbol. Hugh Thomson, a travel writer, said it was the first demonstration he had ever come to: “I think a lot of people feel it has become a standpoint for a liberal, consensual Britain. 

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“There is a feeling the Brexiteers should go off to the Falklands where they can sing songs to Maggie Thatcher by themselves.”

As we chatted, the crowd swelled, and speakers took to the platform one by one. A woman urged the audience to pull out their phones and ring an undecided voter to try to change their mind. 

Pro Eu messages on the paving stones

While her voice boomed over the square, several attendees said more quietly that they thought the death of Jo Cox was pushing voters towards Remain. 

Adrian Browne, is a Labour supporter but doesn’t usually attend political rallies. He told me: “The mood has changed a lot, especially due to recent events. 

“But I think there was already a feeling before the tragic death of Jo Cox that things were getting a little bit poisonous.”

A campaigner who spent many days knocking on doors said there has been a slight move towards Remain after the murder: “That was the turning point, it gives me no pleasure to say.”

On the wide, stone slabs of the square, campaigners had scrawled pro-EU slogans. But just a few feet away, Edinburgh-born Kenny Given had carefully chalked out a passage from a book by Daniel Hannan, the Eurosceptic Tory MEP, on civil liberties. 

“I had no idea this was happening,” he said of the rally nearby. “This is my 10th time here.” Given was made homeless after falling into rent arrears, but he says the debate should not be about the economy: “The main issue is democracy.”

Of course, for every one man patiently copying the words of a Tory MEP onto a pavement, there are hundreds of voters who haven’t quite made up their minds. 

Josh Johnson, a high school student about to start a politics degree, was passing by when he heard the noise of the rally. At 18, he has narrowly slipped into the ranks of those who can vote. 

“I looked into it,” he said. “Why we should leave and why we should stay. And leaving looks more appealing to me. The amount we pay to stay concerns me. At first I thought it was a joke.”

Unlike the speakers on the podium, Johnson appeared sanguine about the future. “Wait and see,” he said.