Madeleina Kay is a pro-European campaigner in the UK, known for her EU-Supergirl persona on social media. She is currently campaigning for a People’s vote on the Brexit deal, and hoping to stop Brexit in March 2019.
By Sarah Robinson / 23.03.2019
What does the EU mean to you?
I was born an EU citizen. I was born with its rights. The idea that they are going to be taken away from me makes me feel outraged. But it’s not just about me, it’s about my whole generation and the whole country. I thoroughly dislike the idea of borders, the idea that people who are geographically closer to you are more important or of greater value. The EU is a celebration of cultural diversity. It supports national identities, puts funding into cultural interests and encourages us to share these cultural experiences and to work co-operatively. You achieve so much more as a person when you work with others, and you achieve so much more as an institution or a country when you work with other countries. You’re part of something bigger and therefore more powerful. If we leave we’ll have less of a say in laws and international decision-making. In terms of my cultural experience, my parents are both university lectures and their master students would let a room at our house, which gave me quite an international outlook from a young age. It gave me the perspective that freedom of movement is a very good, positive thing because it contributes to our cultural diversity.
What is your view on the People’s vote campaign?
The campaign to stop Brexit and to get a people’s vote is not a party-political campaign. It’s run by independent organisations. It is fronted by some MPs from the main parties who are rebelling but is not party specific. The problem is it’s the same people running the campaign [as those who ran the Remain campaign in the run up to the referendum]. But as far as I’m concerned they’re just continuing a failed strategy which is very frustrating.
Where does your frustration stem from? Is it to do with the main political parties or another source?
I don’t get involved with party politics very deliberately. I’m not a campaigner and I believe quite passionately in coalition, in parties working together. We have this crazy bi-party system in the UK where we flip from one extreme to the other and it’s very tribalistic. At the moment the problem is there is no opposition party when it comes to Brexit. The only parties standing up against Brexit are the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. We need cross-party support to stop Brexit. The Conservatives claim to have a mandate for leaving but they don’t as there was nothing specified on the ballot paper. The referendum was not legally binding, and in previous referenda where the result was legally binding they required a minimum 40% of the electorate to vote in consent in order to enact the constitutional change. In this referendum it was 37% of the electorate, which is 26% of the population that voted for Brexit. They are determining the future of 100% of the country. Theresa May lost her majority in the snap general election and she’s now propped up by the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) which is further evidence that the people do not support the Brexit that her party is pursuing. They know Brexit will cause economic damage under every forecasted scenario (all three carried out caused between 2% to 6% damage to GDP, the lowest of which will cause a minimum of £440 million loss each week). People were lied to and the outcome was not legitimate. That is the concrete justification for a people’s vote on the final deal. The Labour party talk about a jobs first Brexit, but there is no such thing if Brexit will cause economic damage under every scenario, meaning lost jobs and lost opportunities for young people to work and study abroad. 18-24 year olds voted 75% to remain, so Jeremy Corbyn does not speak for them. The worrying thing is that 50% of young people who support him think he is pro-EU because he has been very deliberately avoiding voicing an opinion. At the moment the Labour party policy seems to be still a hard Brexit, leaving the single market but remaining in some form of the customs union, but who knows if they will be able to negotiate that or not.
What is your view on the perceived ‘Just-Get-On-With-It’ syndrome, where British people, regardless of how they voted, are saying they just want Brexit over with?
It is a line that you hear quite often but I don’t think it’s the majority of people. If you think that going ahead with Brexit will stop all the madness that’s been going on the for the past two years you will be in for a shock. Brexit is likely to drag out for years and the impact could last decades. If you’re pragmatic then the only sensible option is to remain. If you’re sick of hearing about Brexit the only way to stop hearing about it is to stop it. I think a lot of people who voted to leave thought it would be a simple exit, but nobody knew how complicated and difficult this was going to turn out to be.
What has your experience been with your audience in Europe?
That’s one of my main target audiences. I’ve been very successful at getting European press coverage as opposed to getting press coverage in the UK, I think because of the positive pro-EU narrative that I try and push. I always have an EU flag and I’m always talking about the benefits of the EU that just haven’t been talked about and unfortunately still aren’t being talked about by either campaign in the UK. During a YEM (Young European Movement) workshop in Strasbourg they held a debate about the referendum, asking if the EU should welcome the UK back in the event of a reversal of the decision. The thing that really got to me was that the only arguments they had to support Brexit was that it was the democratic thing to do. I told them it was not in my closing address, which they did not know, even though they were extremely politically engaged. They thought it was a legally binding referendum. To get this message out to Europe about the illegitimacy of the vote and why we need to challenge it is very important.
What is the strategy for the People’s Vote campaign?
There are two campaigns to fight. The first is to get the vote, and the second is to win the vote. The first is picking a line where they are trying to appeal to leavers as well as remainers, telling them the people deserve to have the final say on the deal as it is the democratic thing to do. That’s a fine approach, but it won’t win us the vote should we get it. One of the main reasons why we lost before was because of Project Fear. The Remain campaign was fronted by career politicians with a negative narrative of how bad it would be after Brexit, which is all fine and true. However, people who voted most highly to leave in regional areas were looking at the deprivation around them where they live and at their own lives and asking how could Brexit make it any worse? Bring it on! They were sold lies, the EU was scapegoated, they really played the immigration card and they promised a rosy future with more money for the NHS, which people still believe, even though it’s been proven to be a lie. They voted for hope, for a better future. I don’t hold it against them, I hold it against the people who caused the deception. We have to get the message out to those people that they were lied to and there is hope for a better future inside the EU, particularly a reformed EU. I want to inform and educate them about what the EU has done to remediate the inequality caused by Wesminister by pumping regional funding into these deprived areas of the UK. It’s a travesty that nowhere tells you where this EU funding has been spent. These regions will be most badly damaged by Brexit and we have to get this message out to them and get them to change their votes. We’ve already seen some movement in the polls in women and mothers who voted leave, and young people coming to be of voting age who are more naturally pro the EU because these are rights they’ve grown up with and they are more comfortable with their EU identities and the concept of immigration. I’m confident that done right we can turn this thing around. But we really need this positive narrative as well as the cautionary one.
What is the reaction you get on the streets from your campaigning?
It’s totally mixed. Every person is completely different. I hate this idea that Brexit has caused this national division. There are so many shades of grey and we need to have a more constructive dialogue about people’s reasons for voting and what there hopes were without the abuse and vitriol we’ve seen. I’ve had older people telling me it won’t be as bad as I think, even when I point out that the UK has already had 2.1% GDP damage. Those people can be completely obstinate and you will never change their minds. There are others who are much more amenable. A lot of people are not engaged and don’t care about it. They don’t know what the benefits are of EU membership, how many institutions, organisations, programs, even laws that benefit our lives are from the EU. I go around the UK with my information booklets and reasons to remain posters to inform people about it. It’s important that people do know about it so we can have an informed vote on the final deal. That’s when my bright, colourful posters can be very useful to make people think. They’re very simple and tangible, where people can easily see the link between what the EU does and their lives. Other people can get angry and shouty, wanting to cause problems, but that’s an issue for the police. It’s naive to think that everyone who voted for Brexit voted for the same thing or for the same reasons, or that people are still in the same mindset that they were before the referendum.
You’ve had a lot of traction in the European press, do they get the right view of Britain right now? Are they surprised to see someone like you providing an alternative narrative?
I think they are surprised. I did a project last December, collecting letters of solidarity in the UK over a six month period, all addressed to an anonymous European friend. It was meant to show that there are people campaigning against Brexit in the UK and wanting to make human connections across borders. We took the 1000 letters to Brussels and had a meeting with Guy Verhofstadt where we got some good coverage by the press. The reaction we had when we were giving the letters out to people around the Christmas market in Brussels was very interesting. People working in parliament were seemingly quite grateful for what we’ve done and were happy we were trying to get the message out. Those who weren’t politically engaged did not realise that there was this campaign against Brexit and did not realise how slim the majority was, thinking everyone in the UK was happy with the result. I found it very useful to be having this conversation with people.
Do you think Brexit will happen?
This question gets asked quite a lot. The reality is if we want to stop to Brexit we need public support, as much support as possible and we need people confident it can be stopped. It’s a matter of faith and confidence. The more people putting our message out there, the more likely we can stop it. We need the will of the people to be to stop Brexit. I don’t think that you can show any doubt in that situation. It’s like a salesman, you have to have 100% confidence in the campaigning. That’s why from the start I’ve constructed this image of the EU-Supergirl; it’s a character that is a bastion of hope and positivity for the remain campaign for stopping Brexit. I’m not actually a superhero. Personally I’m more confident than ever that it can be done. It needs to be stopped, it can be stopped and it will be stopped.