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Why Angela Merkel was perhaps not the best choice for Time’s person of the year

By Kristof Decoster
on December 14, 2015

While I understand why Angela Merkel was chosen by  Time as 2015’s person of the year, I think it was a mistake, even if I (like many others) appreciate her somewhat surprising moral leadership in the refugee crisis and the – for journalists – irresistible appeal of a catchphrase like ‘Wir Schaffen das’.  (PS: after this weekend, I would also have understood a choice for Laurent Fabius.)

Still, there was only one ‘person of the year’ in 2015, in my opinion: the so called “populist” politician in European countries and the US. Whether these men and women are really populists or not will depend on your political point of view and on the respective politicians themselves  (some are definitely “populist material”), hence the “ “, but to me it is clear that “populist” politicians, both from the left and right, dominated this year (even if they have been around for a bit longer). Whether their name is Alexis Tsipras, Yanis Varoufakis,  Jeremy Corbyn, Pablo Iglesias or Bernie Sanders (on the left), or instead Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders (on the right), although they often hate each other, together they are a key “Force” now in ‘developed countries’ in the North, and will shape the coming years, one way or another, win or lose.

Why? Because they have made it crystal clear that a globalization process  “no strings attached” that leaves behind large parts of the population in the North (in addition to billions in the South, obviously, but that’s, unfortunately, not “new”) is increasingly under attack.  Together, these left & right wing voices (and as a liberal bleeding heart, I’m definitely no fan of the latter) are starting to shake up the ‘TINA’ story (that Mrs Merkel has also embraced in the past, let’s not forget (“es gibt keine Alternative”) – the leftwing ones are also joined in this by the environmental movement, i.e. Klein et al.

In short, “populist” politicians in the “North” are the political translation of the fact that the SDG agenda (‘leave no one behind’ ) is indeed a universal one. The agenda pertains as much to the North as to the South, even if inequality in the South still wreaks (far) more havoc.

Syriza was still defeated by global finance, at least for now, but the battle in the EU has only begun. The same goes for the US, even if Trump as US president would indeed be a horror scenario, both for the US and the world.

It’s clear that Merkel and other EU leaders have to find a way to make the EU work for everybody, otherwise the whole construction will collapse, as even key EU leaders now acknowledge. The fact that she hasn’t done that in the past 5 years, and pushed for harsh austerity policies together with ECB & EC staff, is part of the reason why her generosity on refugees now – which I applaud – is not followed much in the rest of Europe (although other reasons also play a role).  You can regret that – and I certainly do – but as they say in the bible, you tend to reap what you  sow. And unfortunately, Mrs Merkel does have a socio-economic track record in the euro zone, she’s not a blank slate.

One might point to the (new) Canadian role model now, aka “Mr Vogue”, but let’s face it, the new prime minster is brand new, the Canadians welcome only 25000 people, their geographic situation is slightly different, and last time I checked, single men weren’t part of the deal. So Canadian liberals shouldn’t get too smug yet.

If global elites are as smart as they often pretend to be, and understand the signal of these “populist” politicians (and especially of the many people voting for them), they will refrain from cheaply labelling them ‘extreme-left’ or ‘extreme-right’ but instead work towards a new inclusive global social contract that also works for the poor and precarious in the North. If they refrain from doing that (enter further austerity/huge cuts in social welfare systems, disguised as ‘TINA’, but also TTIP, TTP and the like, as an example), chances are that the EU and perhaps also the US become unmanageable or that you get some real fascists in power. Then we’re really in trouble.

What would such an inclusive global social contract involve? I only see two options. Either we work towards a more “humane” global socio-economic system, whereby people would contribute according to their talents (in my own version of the bible’s “Parable of Talents” – as you can tell, I had a Christian upbringing), energy level, … and everybody can contribute, one way or another. Now, instead, under our wonderful neoliberal ‘one size fits all’ framework, we all have to perform as if we all have ten talents and lungs(and if you only happen to have one (or none), you’re increasingly being put under pressure to contribute or else you lose your miserly allowance).

The other option: we do indeed go further down the capitalist road towards ever more ‘competitiveness’, ‘efficiency’, privatization and ‘value for money’ (which, together with further robotization will leave a lot more people idle, it is likely –  hopefully we can then find a way to keep these people busy, ideally allowing them to find a meaningful way to spend their lives and contribute to the wellbeing of society, in not “marketable” ways). But in the latter case, it’s absolutely essential that the world manages (1) to let the winners of globalization pay fair taxes (yes, Mark Z, that one is for you) so that things like a ‘basic income for all’ can be financed, and (2) global governance is strong enough to push Big Finance, Big Business & other key Davos “stakeholders” into a more inclusive & sustainable way.

Clearly, I’m in favour of option 1. But option 2 might perhaps be the best achievable, as human beings are what they are.

Anyhow, if Angela Merkel works towards either of these options, she’ll be my ‘person of the year’. But I’d settle for Hillary too, if she has a similar agenda!

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