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Brexit on the Thames

Samira Shackle, LondonJune 15, 2016

Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof have faced off over the UK's EU referendum on rival flotillas outside the Houses of Parliament. Samira Shackle went along to watch the bizarre spectacle on the Thames.

Großbritannien London Fishing for Leave Kampaqne an der Themse
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Stansall

It was a surreal morning in London as two rival flotillas clashed over the EU referendum on the river Thames, outside parliament. On one side was the 'Leave' contingent, led by Ukip leader Nigel Farage. On the other was rock star and activist Bob Geldof, leading a smaller fleet of boats protesting for 'Remain.'

Farage was leading a flotilla of fishing trawlers which set off from the south coast in the very early hours of this morning. The protest was organized by the pro-Brexit Fishing for Leave campaign, set up by Scottish skippers a few weeks ago. It contained small inshore fishing boats and trawlers from English ports, although at Tower Bridge most moored: navigation and safety restrictions meant that just 12 boats could carry on to Westminster. Geldof's counter-protest was smaller in scale; a pleasure boat with an enormous sound system blaring out pop music, and a number of rubber dinghies bearing large fluorescent yellow flags.

people on a boat Copyright: Getty Images/J. Spicer
Bob Geldof led the counter-protestImage: Getty Images/J. Spicer

The boats arrived at Westminster soon after midday, as Prime Minister's Questions got underway in the Houses of Parliament. This was the last session of PMQs before the country goes to the polls to vote on membership of the EU on June 23. After a rainy week in London, the weather remained dry, but storm clouds hung heavy in the air as protesters, spectators, and bemused tourists lined Westminster Bridge to watch the drama unfold below.

Geldof blared out the 1960s pop song "I'm with the In Crowd" before taking to a loudspeaker to shout "Nigel, you're a fraud." Farage and his entourage, which included the millionaire Arron Banks, who is funding the Leave.eu campaign, shouted back: "Shame on you."

On the bridge, people waved Union Jack flags and placards in Ukip's distinctive purple and yellow reading "We want our country back."

protesters on a bridge copyright: Samira Shackle
The 'Leave' campaigners were out in full force outside the Houses of ParliamentImage: DW/S. Shackle

"Geldof? I wouldn't listen to a word he's got to say. He's just got his little cause," said Alice Ford, who travelled from Hastings to join the protest. "So much fish is going to waste and it wouldn't be if it wasn't for the EU. Nothing has changed in the last few years, so why would it change now? We have to leave," she told DW.

Fishy business

Fishing for Leave objects to the Common Fisheries Policy, claiming that Scottish fisheries have floundered while other European countries have flourished. It argues that the British fishing industry would be better off if the UK left the EU but had the same status as Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands during fisheries quota talks. "We have been continually sold down the river for the so-called bigger picture and the greater good," says John Buchan, treasurer of Fishing for Leave. "Fishing for Leave is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save what is left of our fishing industry and hopefully try to rebuild it for a sustainable and viable future for the long term," he told DW.

While the question of British fisheries was clearly on the agenda, the event predictably turned into a more general pro-Brexit rally. "I've waited since WWII for Britain to be free," said Rod Evans, who had arrived at Westminster Bridge in the morning with the hope of seeing Farage as he arrived. Ukip councilor David Lambourne was handing out placards to protestors. "I actually voted to join the European Union in 1975," he said. "But I thought it was just a free trade group, I didn't realize we were joining the United States of Europe."

A woman with a loudspeaker, wearing the bright green t-shirt of the Grassroots Out movement, a pro-Brexit campaign group, walked up and down behind the people lining the bridge with a loudspeaker. "Don't be deceived by Cameron's lies. He's trying to deceive you. Don't trust the government. Save your country. Vote leave."


Environmental campaigners have questioned Ukip's motives in backing the fisheries campaign, given Farage's poor voting record when he served as an MEP. "When Nigel Farage had a chance to stand up for UK fishermen in Brussels, he bunked off. His no-show voting record proves he's no fisherman's friend but a cynical opportunist exploiting the harsh predicament of many fishermen for political gain," says Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven.

Ukip has a history of big stunts, which have not always been successful. In May 2014, it hosted a "Carnival of Color" in the South London district of Croydon. Intended to showcase Ukip's links with Britain's ethnic minority communities, it descended into chaos after Romanian protesters picketed the event and a steel band refused to play as they had not realized they'd been hired by Ukip. More seriously, on the day of the general election in May 2010, a plane carrying Farage over Brackley and flying a pro-Ukip banner crashed, injuring the party leader.

Back on the Thames, Geldof's enormous loudspeakers drowned out Farage's broadcast interviews. The Ukip leader accused Geldof of "laughing" at fishermen who had lost their livelihoods. "He doesn't know anything about the common fisheries policy," said Farage. For his part, Geldof said that Farage is "no fisherman's friend," pointing out that Britain makes more money than any other country in Europe from fishing.

fishing boat copyright: Samira Shackle
Most fisherman blame Brussels for their predicamentImage: DW/S. Shackle

As the sparring continued over loudspeaker, horns honked, and music intermittently blared. Central London was momentarily submerged in the sounds of this odd water battle. Meanwhile, the contingent of fishermen on Westminster Bridge, wearing t-shirts that listed their complaints about EU fishing policy, looked on.