Defenders of Democracy: Terry Reintke MEP

Terry Reintke giving a speech in the European Parliament.
Photo credit: ©EuropeanParliament

At a time when parliamentary democracy is under threat as never before, those few courageous voices in the media and in public life who are prepared to come forward and expose corruption, wrong-doing and lying sometimes appear to be the only upholders of democratic government. This is the sixth in a series of articles that will profile some of the key figures in the fight for right over might.

One of the youngest ever MEPs to be elected to the European Parliament in 2014, she is a passionate supporter of women’s rights, a leading light in the fight against authoritarianism in Europe and featured in Time Magazine’s coverage of their 2017 Person of the Year. That’s quite a record to have built by the age of 35.

Terry Reintke, German Green MEP describes her own leadership style as “dynamic, inclusive and committed”, and meeting her on Zoom she personifies all those qualities. She is also – rare for a politician campaigning on such serious issues – enormous fun.

Reintke was born and brought up in Gelsenkirchen, a city in the heartland of the industrial Ruhr that has suffered from the decline of mining and heavy industry and has a high level of unemployment and deprivation. Did this contribute to the development of her political views as she was growing up? Possibly, but Reintke attributes her growing awareness of inequality and the injustices in the world to a deeper and more fundamental realisation: “It comes from growing up as a German. Living with the knowledge that my grandparents and great-grandparents had a duty as citizens in a democracy to speak up for the rule of law, for minorities, and they didn’t really do that. That knowledge brings a level of responsibility and it is why politics and democracy have always played an important part in my own thinking.”

She describes her journey from being a member of the Young Greens to what she laughingly calls “getting into institutionalised politics”.  So does she feel institutionalised, having been an MEP for seven years now? Reintke describes the balance that she tries to strike between being a parliamentarian and an activist: “Sometimes people talk about this dualism between politicians and activists, but I see myself as both and it’s how I try to do politics. When there are issues on the streets I bring them to Parliament, and vice versa.”

She is deeply concerned about the right-wing authoritarianism creeping across Eastern Europe, fuelled by dark money and suspect think tanks: “There are external players coming from Russia and from the US and Brazil who are putting a lot of money into organisations that are building an extensive network across Europe. They aim to suppress fundamental human rights, and they have become active in the European Parliament and in EU Institutions.” One such is the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, which has strongly influenced the current Polish government’s legislation on women’s reproductive rights and attacks on the LGBTI community. Reintke is co-chair of the EU Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup, a cross-party coalition that has voiced concern about the appointment of a Polish MEP associated with Ordo Iuris to the European Economic and Social Committee, which deals with issues of diversity, gender equality and gay rights.

More articles in this series by Ginny Smith:

Like the underground fungal communication network between trees which is only discovered by digging below the surface, Reintke believes that these right-wing networks need the light of day shone on them. But she recognises the challenges: “We need to introduce greater transparency, and the European Parliament must tell the Commission to stop being so timid and to take action against the Polish and Hungarian governments for contravening EU law.” 

Portrait of Terry Reintke.
Photo credit: Cornelius Gollhardt

Introducing greater transparency across EU institutions is a theme that Reintke returns to when discussing the Brussels lobbying industry. Once again, the European Parliament appears to be leading the way: “A lot of MEPs make their lobby meetings public. For instance, you can check on my website to see who I’m meeting with and therefore get an idea of who might be ‘influencing’ me.” She mimes the inverted commas around “influencing”: “But within other institutions, particularly the council, this is only happening to a very small extent. And that is a major concern. Big corporate organisations are trying to shape legislation in Brussels and it often goes on in the background, so it’s not obvious what is happening. I believe that every citizen should be able to easily discover who has been behind certain proposed legislation. That way you can have organisations with different viewpoints having to openly argue their case.”

How does Reintke see the EU developing over the next ten years? She speaks with passion about the need for a new Democratic Spring, for ordinary European citizens to have a greater role within EU institutions to re-energise them, and how the upcoming conference on the Future of the European Union can provide a debating platform for all these ideas. Reintke has been a vocal and loyal supporter of the UK remaining in Europe and retains strong links with pro-EU groups in the country.

She is keen to see UK citizens being given the chance to contribute to conference debates: “In particular, thinking about how the UK can get closer to the EU and eventually return to this project of peace and prosperity.” And then she grins broadly. “Keep fighting!” she says.  

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