Pro-EU march to go ahead in London despite Westminster attack

Dan Roberts Brexit policy editor
Flowers left in Westminster after the terrorist attack. Photograph: Noemi Gago/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Organisers of a pro-Europe demonstration in London have said it will go ahead as planned on Saturday despite concern that a major political protest might be inappropriate after this week’s nearby terrorist attack.

Unite for Europe said it was important that the march, ending with a rally in Parliament Square, demonstrate the resilience of British democracy. It encouraged supporters to show their respect for the victims of Wednesday’s attack in Westminster by laying flowers and will hold a minute’s silence.

The long-scheduled protest was designed to coincide with the triggering of article 50 next week, which will begin the formal Brexit process. It also coincides with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the European Economic Community, which is being marked by similar marches across Europe.

The march is due to begin at 11am outside the Hilton hotel on Park Lane on Saturday and will proceed to Parliament Square by 1pm where speeches are expected until 4pm.

On Thursday evening, the UK branch of the European Movement, one of five affiliated organisations sponsoring the London march, urged supporters not to attend, warning it could stretch police resources.

Europe march

“Yesterday’s tragic events in London mean that the European Movement no longer believe it is appropriate to hold a march on Saturday,” said the group, which is chaired by the former Conservative MP Stephen Dorrell.

“In discussions with the police it has been made clear to us that although they will not prevent the march going ahead, it represents an enormous burden at a time when they need to concentrate on the investigation into the terrorist attack in Westminster,” added its initial statement.

Unite for Europe said that the majority of its sponsors and speakers remained supportive and that continuing as planned was the best way to honour those killed or injured in the attack on Wednesday.

“We’ve just had final authorisation from the [Greater London Authority] and the police that everything is absolutely fine. Parliament Square has reopened and we can use it,” said the committee member Keiran MacDermott on Friday afternoon. “We are going to ahead as initially planned, but we will obviously be changing the tone of the event based on Wednesday’s attack.”

The Metropolitan police confirmed on Friday they were happy for the march to go ahead. “The MPS is working with the organisers of the Unite for Europe Brexit march to facilitate a lawful protest and has a proportionate policing plan in place,” said a spokesman.

MacDermott urged marchers to “bring a symbol of respect to honour the fallen” and said stewards would be placed to help co-ordinate the laying of flowers or wreaths at a makeshift memorial that has sprung up near the site of the deaths.

“As our representatives in parliament have said, it’s right to not be cowed by terrorism,” he said. “Obviously the attacks were atrocious and our thoughts are with the people and the families involved, but we think the best thing to do is to show unity and solidarity and come together.”

Organisers said the vast majority of their planned speakers, including the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, Labour MP David Lammy and Nick Clegg, were still expected to attend.

Uncertainty over the march has nonetheless been compounded by splits within the remain movement over the march’s purpose and political tone as well as a proliferation of competing social media accounts purporting to speak for the group online.

The current organising team, which hosts what it calls the official Twitter and Facebook pages, recently dropped the march’s original “Stop Brexit” slogan in favour of what it views as the less confrontational “Make your voice heard”.

The march’s founder, Peter French, left the committee after disagreements over strategy and its operating practices.

New organisers have asked that a controversial carnival float imported from Germany that shows a giant model of Theresa May with a gun in her mouth not now be brought to the march.

Confusion also grew on Thursday when the European Movement’s email to supporters was initially dismissed as a hoax. The European Movement later apologised for any suggestion that it had the power to suspend the march unilaterally.

“The European Movement raised legitimate concerns yesterday about the advisability of holding the Unite for Europe March after Wednesday’s terrorist attack, but we wish to confirm that the organisers have decided that the march should proceed,” it later added.

Unite for Europe organisers hope the uncertainty will not dent attendance, and suggest that the defiant national mood after Wednesday’s attack may help strengthen rather than weaken resolve to take part in public political activities.