Terry Reintke is already taking steps she hopes will see the UK rejoin the EU. And, aged just 32, she is prepared to be patient. She talks to MATT WITHERS.
Of all the members of the European parliament who have become emotional at the prospect of the UK’s departure, high on the list is one who will, ironically, retain her seat on January 31.
Terry Reintke, a German Green MEP and social media break-out star, describes herself as “super emotional” at the Brexit result and subsequent failure to secure a second referendum.
The chances are Reintke’s tweets and posts on the subject have found their way into your feed in the last year or so. An impassioned plea for MPs to “put it back to the people” went viral last year; a Love Actually-style video posted on Twitter at Christmas with a message of hope to “UK friends” was one of the least nauseous of that particular festive trope.
And so it is that the 32-year-old from Gelsenkirchen, in western Germany, is now founder and chair of the European parliament’s EU-UK Friendship group, a platform she hopes will ultimately lead to the latter rejoining. On the day it held its first meeting in mid-January, Reintke told the Strasbourg parliament: “Trust me: one day, I will see British MEPs being elected into this chamber again.”
In our interview – we start in German before switching to English approximately 20 seconds in – she explains what led her to set up the group. “I thought we have to do something, we have to look into the future, and then I thought that this is a sentiment that a lot of my colleagues share, that we want to keep very, very close ties with the UK after the Brexit day.
“Our British colleagues who very sadly have to leave after January had always been a very good means of cooperation. We had British MEPs and MEPs from other member states working together and then we could feed back the information into the different member states.
“That’s going to be lost after Brexit and I thought we need to keep that going and that’s how I came up with the idea of starting such a friendship group.”
The first meeting, she says, was “absolutely packed” with the group so unprepared as to the interest that they hadn’t organised enough seats. “I think that’s why some people didn’t want to stay the whole time, because they didn’t want to stand for an hour.”
For Reintke, an MEP since 2014, it’s personal as much as anything. She studied political science in Edinburgh and is as passionate about Britain as she is Europe.
She bemoans how the Remain cause made cold economic arguments as opposed to tugging the heart-strings (although how this would have panned out in an alternative history we’ll never know). Where else does she think Remain went wrong?
“I think one of the things I regret a little bit is our Green colleagues in the UK very much said ‘no, don’t come to the UK during the referendum campaign, it will be seen as other people meddling in domestic affairs, so we don’t want to have Europeans campaigning for Remain, we rather want to do this inside of a British debate’.
“And now looking back I think maybe more Europeans – not necessarily MEPs but just people like my parents, maybe, you know, Günther and Renate from Castrop-Rauxel, they should have come to the UK… as a regular person, citizen, from another EU country explaining to a UK citizen why to them it is important to be a member of the European Union.”
Back in 2016, she had been reassured by British friends on the Remain side that everything was going to be ok. “All the people that I spoke to, they said ‘no, Terry, don’t worry, I mean, it looks tight in the polls but in the end the British public is going to vote in a – inverted commas – conservative way and keep with the status quo.”
But she thinks Remainers underestimated the effect of several decades of anti-EU coverage in the press. “If you had been bombarded with this your whole life, you would believe a lot of – excuse my French – bulls**t in a referendum campaign like this, and I think they really underestimated this and in the end the referendum was as it was.”
The earthy language is part of Reintke’s appeal – her social channels can be properly funny (when Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay repeatedly told Radio 4’s Today last year there were unspecified “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop, she posted a tweet of a unicorn with the caption ‘Hi there, my name is alternative arrangement’).
“Especially coming from the European level there’s this whole narrative about these unelected technocrats in Brussels, this comes from somewhere,” she says.
“And it comes from the fact that very often the language that we are using here and the way that we interact with citizens, with people… a lot of people in Brussels and Strasbourg, it’s very professional, in a way, it’s very rational, very serious.
“And obviously there is a reason for that, because you want to appear like a serious institution and we’re doing serious work here – which we do – but at the same time I think it can put a very big distance between the European institutions, the European parliament, the European Commission and the citizens, so what I’m really trying to do is to show, look, obviously we’re doing very serious things here, we’re working on legislation, it’s really hard sometimes, it’s really technocratic.
“But at the same time we are all human beings, so obviously for a lot of my colleagues in this parliament the last weeks have just been s**t. I mean, you know, with this election result they’re going to leave, so for them this is a very, very bad situation, so I want to show that.
“On the other hand, we are also having a lot of fun here, and I think this is something that I would like people to feel, and I think that social media is the perfect means to do that.”
Her party, the Greens, are in the ascendancy and, if current polls are anything to go by (they are on 22%) almost certain to be part of the next German government with federal elections due in 2021. (“Obviously we are in a very different position to our Green friends in the UK because we have a proportional voting system,” says Reintke.)
Some in the party look to Austria, where their sister party has just joined the right wing People’s Party in government. Such alliances already exist in Germany, including in states such as Hesse and Baden-Württemberg – in the latter case, with the Greens as the senior partner – but not at a federal level. Yet.
Reintke warns against it as a template for the future. “I really think it’s not a blueprint for Germany,” says Reintke. “I mean, the Austrian Greens have decided to join this government. I think the negotiations for us are going to start on a completely different background because, as you know, the Austrian Greens were not in parliament before, so it was much more difficult for them.
“Obviously we are striving to govern, but not at all costs. So we will be very clear that we want to take the responsibility and be in government, but in a lot of political questions we will stand really strong and we will also have red lines that we will not cross, and this obviously makes coalition agreement with all other parties difficult and challenging.
“We are up for the task and we will see how the election result is going to be, what kind of options are going to be on the table.
“But let me tell you, after following Brexit for three years I’m really not willing to make very strong speculative commitments any more because so many things have happened that I never thought could happen.”
And that vow to one day see British MEPs being elected again? Well, bear in mind that Reintke is 32.
“The worst thing that can happen right now is for us to lose hope,” she says.
“To just think, ok, this is done now and now we are not going to follow up and try to build something. Because let’s say, worst-case scenario – [electing UK MEPs] is never going to happen again.
“Still, to have this kind of aim and ambition to work to keep very close ties, to keep the Erasmus programme going also for the UK, to have partnerships, to have exchanges between people… even, in the end, if it doesn’t reach that aim to have British MEPs being elected to the European parliament, it’s still absolutely important to have very close links and to cooperate on any possible basis.
“When the referendum happened in the 1970s and the UK decided to join the European Union, since then people have tried and campaigned to push the UK back out.
“And probably this is something that takes 20, 30 years. But I have that time, I have that patience. And if it takes 20, 30 years, if a new generation has to come into political positions and then there’s another referendum and then the UK is to rejoin, I’m willing to go, you know, the long way. I’m willing to run this marathon that’s ahead of us.”