Madeleina Kay

Madeleina Kay: Popstar Against Brexit


Article published on Zeit Online

(Unofficial translation)


Brexit has politicized Madeleina Kay: For almost three years she has tried to stop it. In doing so, she manages what Remain’s campaign and EU have failed so far.

When everything was lost, Madeleina Kay decided to wear a costume and sing. A wet and cold Sunday afternoon on the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. Madeleina enters the small stage, which clings to the steps in front of the concert hall, the borrowed guitar in front of her. She looks like she’s bought a London souvenir shop empty: her coat is fully printed with the British flag, the Union Jack. She also wears Union Jack wellington boots and Union Jack gloves. The EU flag is less intrusive: blue-colored fringe, golden glitter on the left temple, blue-gold nail polish.

Madeleina holds up a placard, yesterday in the hotel quickly painted with watercolours on a cardboard letter envelope: “I think we should stay”. It is the title of the first song that Madeleina sings for the people who came to the Pulse-of-Europe event at the Gendarmenmarkt today. A love song for Europe, that’s what she calls it, and it sounds like, “We’re safe in your arms, we’re safe by your side,” Madeleina sings. “We’re stronger when we are one.” More radio ballad than a protest song. Smartphones film and photograph the performance. Later, when Madeleina sings her second song, an elderly woman wearing a wollen hat and glasses says, “Yeah, she’s great, people are listening to her, politicians are too stupid.”


Madeleina Kay is 24 years old and lives with her father in Sheffield, a city in the North of England. In recent months Madeleina has become a face of anti-Brexit protest in Britain : when parliamentarians once again voted on Theresa May’s deal and people protested in parliament, her image appeared in the media , including in Germany . On Twitter , 28,800 people follow her as they fight their country’s exit from the EU , and more than 2,800 on Instagram . Last year, the Schwarzkopf-Stiftung Junges Europa foundation named Madeleina ‘Young European of the Year’. To celebrate the award, she had a tattoo on her left forearm: “Toujours EUropéenne”: Always EUropean, with a few notes from the song ‘Vincent’  by Don McLean.

In fact, Madelena’s fight began too late: on 23rd June 2016, the day when a small majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union. Madeleina was in favour of staying in the EU, but two days before the referendum she had posted a video on YouTube , including the appeal: ” Vote remain “. But she really did not fight against Brexit , she did not take to the streets for the EU. “I did not perceive Brexit as a danger.”

Only when the result came in, did the danger become real: 51.9 percent for Leave. She was shocked, Madeleina says today, so shocked that she wanted to do something. So she took her guitar and wrote a song. A few days later, she sang the song at a rally by the Liberal Democrats, the only British party that openly campaigns for Remain. This was followed by other songs, events, social media postings. After the summer vacation Madeleina went back to University, fourth trimester of landscape architecture in Sheffield. She wanted to continue studying. But then she took a field trip…

With her tutors, Madeleina travelled to Sheffield’s city center, where thanks to the “Grey-to-Green” project, there are now trees, flowers and benches, formerly just asphalt and pavement, co-funded by the EU. The first phase of the project is already over, there should actually be more phases. “But our lecturers said that the project might not be completed because it is unclear where the money will come from after Brexit,” says Madeleina. But it bothered something else: “Nowhere was an EU flag, which showed that the EU had provided for the funding.” She researched and found other projects in Sheffield, for which the same applies. Today, she says she does not only realise how many benefits EU membership would have but also how little the British know about it. So she decided to drop out of university and spend 100 percent of her time changing that, funded by crowdfunding .

Madeleina’s story sounds like that of a start-up where enlightenment was the beginning and then success came. Only that she does not sell products, but herself: Madeleina has become an influencer for Europe. Not to earn money, the EU does not pay when Madeleina holds her flag for the camera. It is her attempt to stop Brexit. And to tell a story about the EU, which has been missing, not only in the UK.


Two minutes before the Pulse-of-Europe event starts at the Berlin Gendarmenmarkt, Madeleina brings a German and a European flag out of her shoulder bag. “I’m preparing,” she says, grinning. She binds the flags to a telescopic pole, stands on the steps in front of the concert hall with legs astride and waves the black, red, blue and gold fabric over her head. Immediately, four photographers perch on the steps in front of her, Madeleina smiles alternately into the cameras.

While two wind players play the European anthem and the organizers open the event, Madeleina flies her flags through the crowd of dark winter jackets, making a selfie with anyone who wants. A woman was sent by her friend from London. You must absolutely see Madeleina, she told her. Smile, click. Another has brought a poster that Madeleina distributes regularly at events. There are 24 reasons why Britain should stay in the EU, 24 Reasons to Remain . Smile, click.


Madeleina never stops for long. She goes on fast, to the next selfie, to the next short conversation. Every time she goes on stage, she pushes her smartphone into someone’s hands, she needs videos for Instagram. Between her performances, she checks what happens on Twitter. When she notices that one of the photographers watching her through his lens, she pauses, scrolls a little longer than necessary, so that the media also get a good picture.

In addition to Madeleina, Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition Policy, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief negotiator for the Brexit negotiations, will also be on stage this Sunday. The appearances of the two politicians carry more content than Madeleina’s: they talk about the dangers of nationalism and the need to reform the EU. Madeleina also talks about these topics when talking to her for a longer time. But with her performance, she is pursuing another mission: she wants to be a poster-girl for the EU, marketing for an idea she is convinced of. She does not want to land in the minds of people, but in their smartphones.

If you ask Madeleina why she chose this form of protest, she says, “Facts are important, but the struggle we have to win is emotional.” She bases this argument on a feature of the Remain campaign: Remain tried to convince voters before the Brexit referendum by rational economic arguments, and lost. Leave put on emotions and won.

That’s why Madeleina packs her message in loud love songs and colourful pictures. So she drove through Britain with a bright yellow bus marked Bollocks to Brexit . And that’s why she eventually started wearing costumes during her performances. Their best known: EU supergirl. A blue velvet top with Superman logo framed by golden stars, a red skirt and a red cape. One day she flew out of a press conference in the Berlaymont Building , the seat of the European Commission, for the costume , and the media gave her the title. Meanwhile, Madeleina EU-Supergirl has built up her own campaign figure, she calls herself on their social media profiles, some of the Pulse-of-Europe Participants in Berlin know her only under the name. In her campaign, she reinforces a part of herself, showing only the colourful, the positive, says Madeleina.

At the end of the Pulse-of-Europe rally, people come to Madeleina to tell her that her music is fantastic, thank her for inspiration and hard work, and wish her luck. A woman takes two little girls forward to the stage, they also want a picture with the supergirl. Then Madeleina rolls up her flags and goes the few steps over to the café of the Konzerthaus. Actually she would rather go to the hotel, post in peace. But a friend from England persuaded her to have a coffee with him and a few other participants.


The group sits down at a table with a white tablecloth, Madeleina takes off the Union Jack rubber boots and rubs her cold feet. The others talk, Madeleina does not participate. She pulls a power bank and headphones out of her shoulder bag and plugs both into her cell phone. Now begins the second part of her marketing mission: On Instagram alone she will publish nine more posts this evening. Of course she also did a selfie with Guy, but he just did not want to talk to her about the Brexit opponents in the UK.

With a performance at Pulse of Europe in Berlin Madeleina reaches only a few people who are already Europafans. But with the photos and videos that emerge from it, she can achieve much more. Time and again, people would tell her that her social media feed cheers them up , says Madeleina. She even reports Leave voters on Facebook that they had seen her campaign on TV or on the Internet and had changed their minds.

She also gets criticism and hate on social networks, from Brexiteers, but also from supporters of the Remain campaign. They would blame her for marketing herself and for not taking the problem seriously, downplaying it with her silly songs and costumes, says Madeleina. This criticism hits her more than that of the Brexiteers because it invalidates what she lives her life to achieve.

Madeleina’s protests sometimes seem painfully superficial, especially on Twitter and Instagram: EU flags, selfies as Valentine’s Angels , the Bollocks-to-Brexit bus, hashtag #EUSupergirl , heart-emoji, laugh-emoji. After the facts, the contents you have to look for. But they are there: Madeleina not only writes songs and makes costumes, she has also been working intensively with the EU for almost three years.


In December 2016, half a year after the Brexit referendum, Madeleina designed an EU Advent calendar , drawing a benefit from EU membership for every day until Christmas: funding grants such as the Grey-to-Green project in Sheffield, Erasmus , the single market, peace. 24 Reasons to Remain, 24 reasons to stay. In the meantime Madeleina has not only printed them on posters, but also in a booklet: For each of the 24 reasons she has researched together with her father, a university lecturer, and the platform InFacts data and information, financed by 192 crowdfunders.

It’s an attempt to spread a positive narrative about the EU – something that the official Remain campaign has failed to do, not only Madeleina says, political scientists say. Remain confined itself to explaining how Britain would suffer from a Brexit, rather than showing how it benefited from the EU. Not talking about the benefits of EU membership is typical of much of Britain’s politics . And the EU itself has a hard time telling a good story, persuasively telling its citizens what it is there for, and countering EU-critical populists.

Madeleina wants to change that and has made it to the EU institutions. Just four weeks after the Pulse-of-Europe event, she traveled to Brussels to speak at the European Economic and Social Committee, including livestream on Facebook and YouTube. She wore again her Union Jack Wellington boots and her Union Jack coat, including an EU flag top. But this time she did not sing a song, but made a speech: in six minutes, she said that the EU had achieved a lot, but failed to convey this to its citizens. Brexit is the best example. She also explained how the EU needs to change its communication strategy: less serious, less technical, more emotions, more identity. Emphasise when municipalities have benefited from EU funds. The EU, Madeleina thinks, has to become more like her.


Even if Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, her 25th birthday, Madeleina wants to continue. “The EU is not dying with Brexit,” she says. “There is still an EU that I can fight for.” She hopes that there will soon be 24 Reasons to Remain booklets in all EU countries . She has just recorded a new song along with David Rowntree, drummer of rock band Blur, and bassist Guy Pratt, who has played with David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Madonna. She wants to convince people to go to the European elections and vote best for pro-European parties. Even if she herself may not have it.

Article published on Zeit Online

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