It’s been two years since the shoppers and traders of London’s Romford market voted by a wide margin for their country to leave the European Union.
Enthusiasm for Brexit in this working-class district on the British capital’s eastern edge hasn’t dimmed. But with Britain still not out the EU exit door and negotiations slowed to a crawl, impatience is growing.
“I think most people are just fed up,” said fishmonger Dave Crosbie. “It seems that you take two steps forward and all of a sudden you’ve got to take a step back.”
A mere 20 miles (32 kilometres) away in the centre of London—yet on the other side of the Brexit divide—Tahmid Chowdhury also worries about the way things are going.
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The law graduate was surprised and disappointed when Britain voted by a margin of 52% to 48% to leave the EU on June 23, 2016. It was unwelcome evidence that the pro-European views of his London friends and acquaintances were not universally shared.
“The problem with the referendum is it divided people—divided families, divided communities—just because of the hostile nature of how the arguments were made,” he said.
The divisions opened up by the referendum have not healed but hardened. Once, many Britons would have defined themselves as right-wing or left-wing, Conservative or Labour.
Brexit has created two new and mutually uncomprehending camps in Britain: leavers and remainers.
Leavers—concentrated in small towns and post-industrial cities across England—are eager to cut Brussels red tape, reassert British sovereignty and take control of immigration. Remainers, who most often live in big cities and university towns, would rather stay in an alliance that has eased the flow of goods, services and people across 28 nations with half a billion inhabitants.
Almost the only thing the two groups share is pessimism about the state of Brexit. Asked by pollsters how well Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative-led government is handling negotiations, most Britons reply: “badly.”
With just nine months to go until the U.K. is due to leave on March 29, 2019, Britain and the EU have yet to agree the terms of their divorce. There has been no deal on future trade and economic relations, and no firm solution to the problem posed by the Ireland–Northern Ireland border. After Brexit, the currently invisible frontier will be the only land border between an EU nation and the U.K.
Britain and the EU say they want to finalize a deal by October, so that national parliaments across the bloc can approve it by March. But EU officials are impatient with Britain’s lack of detailed proposals, and few people believe there will be much progress when leaders meet at an EU summit in Brussels next week.
Public opinion expert John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said Britons are “deeply critical, deeply dubious, about what Brexit is going to bring.”
“That hasn’t persuaded, however, most people to change their minds,” he said Friday. “This country remains split down the middle on Brexit in exactly the same way as it was two years ago.”
Leavers and remainers are at odds over who is to blame for the Brexit impasse. Those on the “leave” side point to Parliament, where members of the House of Commons and House of Lords have attempted to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government in order to soften the terms of departure.
Brexit-supporting newspapers depict Parliament as a nest of traitorous “remainiacs” determined to overturn the popular will. The Sun accused pro-EU lawmakers of a “great betrayal,” and the Daily Mail branded judges who ruled against the government “enemies of the people.”
Remainers accuse the other side of making promises that will not be met and of stoking divisions by painting immigrants as a problem.
And they say Brexit is already hurting the economy. After the referendum, the value of the pound plunged. Britain’s economic growth is now the slowest among major industrial economies. Manufacturers and exporters wonder whether they will face tariffs or other barriers to trade after Brexit.
Aviation giant Airbus threatened Friday to leave Britain—where it employs about 14,000 people—if the country exits the EU without an agreement on future trading relations.
But economic arguments have done little to sway opinion on Brexit, said Anand Menon of the U.K. in a Changing Europe think-tank.
“Your perception of the economy is dominated by whether you think we should leave the European Union or not,” he said. “Remainers think the economy has been doing really badly in the last two years. Leavers think the economy has been absolutely fine.”
There’s certainly little voter’s remorse at Romford’s street market, where stalls sell meat, fish, household goods, clothing and piles of red-and-white flags for England fans to wave during the soccer World Cup.
London—the most diverse place in Britain and hub of its huge financial sector—voted 60-40 in favour of staying in the EU. But in Havering, the London borough that contains Romford, 70% opted to leave.
“I’m for Brexit. We all are down here,” said 80-year-old Bill Pearson, selling leather belts and bags at his son’s stall. Like many here, he once worked in the auto industry, and has seen the area shed industrial jobs, even as its largely white population has been joined by new residents from around the world.
“It’s about time these (lawmakers) of all parties, said, ”Right, we’re going into Brexit—let’s work together and get a good deal out of it,’“ Pearson said.
Chowdhury is also battling to influence the shape of Brexit. After the referendum he joined a successful legal challenge to ensure that Parliament had a say on the outcome, then co-founded an immigration advice service for EU citizens worried about their status in Britain.
He said he and his London friends fought in the referendum “for what we thought was going to be a more open, more tolerant, more united Britain in Europe.”
“And when we lost, I felt even more empowered to keep fighting for that vision of the country that I was born in and I love,” he said.