An EU law graduate galvanized into activism, Femi Oluwole never thought he would end up a leading light of the anti-Brexit movement. Having co-founded a Europhile youth movement and resolutely sparred prominent Brexiteers, he now changes his point of attack. His aim? A Labour government. In the meantime, however, Oluwole will do everything to prevent a no-deal and remain a thorn in the side of “Leavers”.
Femi Oluwole, 29, is not one to bow out of a fight. Fearless in the face of Brexit celebrities Nigel Farage and Richard Tice, Leader and Chairman of The Brexit Party, he has openly spoken out against their policies, taking to Twitter and YouTube to slate them. They are reluctant to debate him, even though his Brexit battle is lost. But Oluwole hopes he can win the war. The day after the UK’s departure from the EU, Oluwole was disappointed but determined to continue the fight with a new strategy.
'Just a random guy'
Born to Nigerian doctors who had emigrated to the UK in the 1980s, he grew up in Darlington, in North East England, moving house 14 times by the age of 14. "I was always the new guy,"he remembers. "Independent thinking is something that’s hard-wired into me."
Oluwole studied Law and French at Nottingham University, including an Erasmus Programme year in the Breton city of Brest, where he polished his French language skills. Stints followed working for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights agencies in Brussels and Vienna.
'I had to get involved: no-one else was going to'
These experiences, combined with his knowledge of EU law, sharpened a sense that “Europe” was misunderstood in the UK. “I have sat in the committee rooms of the European Parliament where elected politicians pass laws that affect us in every area of our lives,” he says. “I knew the narrative in the UK that the EU is full of unelected bureaucrats was false.”
Oluwole says he felt frustrated by the efforts of David Cameron and the pro-EU campaign in 2016 - and a patriotic duty to get involved. He began by answering questions and providing information about complex EU legal issues to people in the street: “I got semi-famous politically because I’ve been explaining the stuff that politicians failed to” he recalls. “I realised I had to get involved because no-one else was going to. I felt I had the ability to solve this lack of understanding in the UK surrounding the EU.”
'Explaining politics in ways politicians were just not doing'
In October 2017, he co-founded Our Future Our Choice (OFOC), a pro-EU advocacy group for young people – and it was social media that took Femi’s activism from his local streets to a vastly wider audience. “In 2016, I had about 20 followers on Twitter so every time I tweeted something, it was the same stuff as today, but nobody was hearing it. Now I’ve got a quarter of a million followers because I’ve been explaining politics in ways the politicians were just not doing.”
OFOC’s Twitter account has now amassed a healthy 75 thousand followers. Oluwole has become a sought-after speaker at anti-Brexit demonstrations, notably the People’s Vote rally in March 2019 which drew hundreds of thousands to London’s Parliament Square.
Oluwole also clashed with The Brexit Party Chairman Richard Tice, who threatened to sue Femi for labelling his organisation Leave.EU “overtly anti-Jewish”.
A tale of two sides
The Brexit Party is certainly not ready to forgive or forget: “He is someone who has been employed by the state to make a nuisance of himself and his pro-EU agenda,” claims Andrew Bell, The Brexit Party parliamentary candidate for Buckingham in the 2019 election.
For his part, Femi has previously stated that OFOC raises the bulk of its funding through its own crowdfunding, and that it receives support from bigger non-governmental anti-Brexit organisations.
Alex Story, a former Conservative Party politician and representative for the Leave.EU Business Group, dismisses the legitimacy of Oluwole and OFOC altogether, asserting that “the main misunderstanding in Femi’s campaign is that only 20% of young people voted in 2016. Young people don’t care about politics”.
Nevertheless, many openly respect his work and determination.
“Combative, energetic and flamboyant”is how Nicolas Hatton describes the 29-year-old campaigner. Hatton himself is founder of “the3million”, the largest grassroots organisation of EU citizens in the UK, campaigning to protect citizens’ rights after Brexit. He says he admires Oluwole’s drive: “Femi is fighting a good cause and is unique. He definitely has a future.”
The UK may have officially left the EU, but Oluwole says it’s not the end of the story for him. He joined Labour after December’s snap election, when the party slumped to its lowest haul of seats since 1935, and hopes to “make Labour more electable".
His strategy to reach that goal is clear. “That means working with other parties," Femi says, "being less extreme on the far left and supporting electoral reforms so that people in those other parties on the left can feel they can vote for Labour as a way of making their votes count at the following election.”
For Femi, it might be too late to change Brexit but not to change UK’s political landscape.