Reinhard Bütikofer – Beijing’s adversary

Reinhard Bütikofer is spokesman for the Green Group in the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Reinhard Bütikofer is a passionate chess player. 50 years ago, he won a city youth championship. When he competed simultaneously against an international grandmaster back then, or so he tells it, the game ended in a draw. He conducts his conversations just as he plays chess. Sometimes he confronts someone with something, then takes his time and waits to see in which direction his counterpart moves. Meanwhile, he watches attentively and patiently. Of course, he competes against fellow party members more often, he says. “But most of them only played me once.”

The Green MEP grew up in Speyer in the Palatinate region of Germany. His father was a postal worker, his mother a housewife. Bütikofer was the first in his family to graduate from high school with a degree in an ancient language. In 1971, he enrolled in Heidelberg, some 25 kilometers away, and began studying philosophy, history, ancient history, and, at times, sinology. It was the time of the student movement, and Bütikofer later became a member of the Maoist Communist University Group (KHG) and the Communist League of West Germany (KBW). During the day, he discusses, debates, and agitates. In the evening, he goes to the pub – and plays chess.

Two years later, he runs for student representative in the philosophy department conference – his first political office. He then looks into local politics. In Heidelberg, he initiates a local political debate forum in which leftists, far-leftists, greens, liberals, social democrats, and young unionists participate. In 1984, the 31-year-old “Büti” swaps the lecture hall for the city hall and is elected to the city council for the Green Alternative List. “At the time, I made a point of not hiding the fact that I had been a long-term student and a member of KBW,” he recalls.

How Bütikofer became a China expert

A long-term student who was later to make a career at state and federal level and then in European politics. The fact that he never graduated from university does not bother even the University of Heidelberg. There is even a biography of him on their site. During his studies, he also became interested in China. The story he tells about it goes like this: In 1970, he cycles through Great Britain with a friend. In London, it is raining terribly. Bütikofer takes refuge in a bookstore.

“After an hour, the saleswoman came up to me and asked if I hadn’t noticed that the rain was over.” He was particularly taken with two books: “Teach yourself Swahili” and “Teach yourself Chinese“. Bütikofer buys the latter and starts scribbling Chinese characters while still on the bike ride. He had no idea that his China expertise would land him on the Chinese Communist Party’s sanctions list 50 years later.

His telephone bills were considered legendary

At the end of the 1980s, he was elected to the Baden-Württemberg state parliament and became budgetary and financial policy spokesman for the Green parliamentary group. He also climbed the party ladder: In 2002, Bütikofer became federal chairman of the Greens and tried to mend the rifts within the party between the realists and the leftists. When he relinquished the post six years later to the current Minister of Agriculture, Cem Özdemir, a journalist wrote of Bütikofer’s time in office that he had been a gifted mediator. This was evidenced not least by his high telephone bills, which were legendary among the Greens.

Bütikofer, meanwhile, is taking a different path: He wants to get involved in European politics. There are two reasons for this. Even today, he says, “Speyer, the Haardt, the Rhine plain, that’s my home.” This German-French border region, which had long been contested, would particularly appreciate the project of European unification. “That shapes someone who grows up in these contexts.” The other formative experience for him was German unification. Bütikofer wants to work for a European Germany. After all, attempts to create a German Europe have ended badly twice.

China bans him from entering the country

In Strasbourg and Brussels, he also experiences a different kind of politics, one that has to seek consensus across party and state lines – unlike in the Stuttgart state parliament. “Mayer-Vorfelder, the finance minister of Baden-Württemberg, once asked me why I was so committed to presenting my proposals because I knew very well that everything would be voted down.” And indeed: In eight years, he wins exactly one vote in the state parliament. He has only experienced such exclusion from two sides in his work in the European Parliament: from the right-wing radicals and from Xi Jinping’s CCP, he says and laughs.

Last year, the Chinese party banned him from visiting the mainland, Hong Kong or Macao. In response, Bütikofer tweets, “But there’s still Taiwan.” And adds a smiley.

In the meantime, he is not only known as a proven China expert. Bütikofer tweets about Nord Stream 2, EU taxonomy, and the ban on the human rights organization Memorial International in Russia. On the USA, on climate and trade policy, and on German foreign policy. In the China-Lithuania conflict, he thinks, the German chancellor could take a stronger stance for Lithuania similar to what the EU has already done. He considers the traffic light idea of a federal Europe, including treaty reform, to be quite realistic, but not in this legislative period.

Increasing nationalism

When asked how he would breathe life into the “values-based” and “feminist” foreign policy enshrined in the coalition agreement, he says that he does not carry these concepts around in front of him like a Tibetan prayer wheel, but he does cite practical examples, such as the fight against rising nationalism. He views this with great concern.

In the long run, Germany alone does not have a spoon long enough to eat from a soup bowl together with the major powers. “Either we help ourselves to the European spoon, or we don’t get much of the soup.” A European policy on China, is the most important thing about the agreement the coalition has reached on the issue. And maybe it doesn’t need any new terms. Pauline Schinkels


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