Yanis at the traffic lights

Wanting to thank a friend recently I got her Kati Marton’s The Chancellor1 an insightful and well researched account of Angela Merkel’s ‘political brilliance’. Books are my appreciation currency and in offering them as gifts they represent, non-fiction titles in particular, a measure of what I consider important in the world of ideas at any given time. But, much as I acknowledge Merkel’s historical significance and respect the restraint and civility she showed at critical moments, it struck me that on its own the book would send a one-sided signal. While she held Europe from breaking apart in 2015, her condemnation of Greece to years of unnecessary austerity was an avoidable failure.

I opted, therefore, to add to my friend’s gift package a copy of Adults in the Room2, the lowdown on Greece’s Eurozone crisis by the controversial economist Yanis Varoufakis a frequent critic of the former Chancellor. It was a deliberate mismatch, a ‘both-sides’ stunt to use the term that captures journalism’s current malaise.

Fifteen years-ago there could not have been a more ill-suited candidate for Germany’s Chancellorship than Merkel. Born in Hanover, her family relocating to East Germany in the 1950s, she would study at Karl Marx University and, improbably after unification, join the centre-right Christian Democrat party, CDU.

Similarly, seven years ago, there could not have been a more ill-suited candidate for Greece’s finance ministry than Varoufakis. Born to leftist activist parents, an obscure but brilliant academic he would take – reluctantly he claimed – centre stage during the Euro crisis to become one of the Left’s most articulate spokespersons.

I pointed to the oddity of the book-pairing in the accompanying card and admitted my binary appreciation. My friend retorted, with exclamation marked excitement, that she was in fact a fan of both Angela and Yanis.

I am quite sure we are in the minority. More so when it comes to Varoufakis who drew immense hostility in the Greek speaking world where his name has been unfairly smeared, but where, I suspect, more people than would dare admit follow his interventions. Less out of conviction, I think, and more as guilty intellectual pleasure.

One might ask “How is it possible to reconcile the ideological positions of Merkel and Varoufakis and ‘appreciate’ both?” It is a question conditioned by an increasingly polarized public discourse which precludes the capacity to hold two seemingly different positions at once.

With politicians desperate for media attention and the media’s own deliberate effort to generate tension, public discourse is a battleground of irreconcilability. Politicians and parties are often pitched against each other in ways they might not actually intend themselves. Some stay trapped there forever.

Mary Southcott, a scholar who had worked closely with the late Robin Cook on constitutional reform in the UK, once told me that elements of socialism, liberalism and conservatism are best in union, not argued against the other. Political parties, she said, will identify with one over the other but sustainability required elements from all of them. Justice and equality from the Left, freedom and individual rights from the Liberals and conserving the best from the past from the Right. It’s a simple notion but one which our political culture doesn’t tolerate; it rarely affords us the chance to contemplate it.

Last month Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, took office with the support of what has become known as the traffic light coalition between his party, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the centre-right and fiscally conservative Free Democrats.

It is an odd mix with the three parties holding very different positions on economic and foreign policies. Significantly, as the economist Andreas Charalambous wrote3 for the Cyprus Economic Society recently, the swiftly reached 700-page agreement is not based on a lowest common denominator but is a synthesis of the priorities of the three parties.

True to form Varoufakis claimed the new federal government would be neither rebellious nor progressive, because, as he put it, politics in Germany is “visionless, conformist and without ambition”.

Yet Varoufakis knows well that post 1945 Germany is not a country of revolutions. It is a mature democracy of rational evolution and incremental progress. It is the only place where responsible market freedom and real social protection achieve an acceptable if not yet fully satisfactory balance.

Which is why, one assumes, Varoufakis has decided to launch DiEM25, the Democracy in Europe Movement4 that he co-founded (and leads in Greece as MERA25) as a new political party there. By utilising the EU right to contest elections across member state jurisdictions his move is a bold foray into European political integration. The radical who was portrayed as anti-European is practically charting a path of pan-Europeanism by pursuing the block’s democratisation on the basis of his movement’s alter-globalisation social ecological agenda.

It is not dissimilar to what the Greens did back in 1983 when they first entered the West German Bundestag and gradually began to change the face of politics in Europe. Now, post-Merkel, the Green Party’s co-leaders have found themselves in the heart of government. Robert Habeck is Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister while Annalena Baerbock is in charge of foreign affairs. Their party is now firmly rooted in the European political spectrum. It took decades but much of what was considered alternative Green extremism in ’83 is now mainstream.

DiEM25 is endorsed by high profile thinkers like Noam Chomski, Naomi Klein, Srecko Horvat and Catherine Lucas as well as a range of already elected European parliamentarians. It is slowly making headway as a transnational progressive movement especially among the educated young fed up with inequality and austerity. Like the Greens in the 80s it is capable of bringing a fundamental rethink of Europe in a post-capitalist world.

With capitalism stuck and democracy shrinking, Europe feels and seems lost. The US is locked in a potentially explosive Republican-Democrat polarity and Brexit Britain is unable to escape its Tory-Labour divide. But a resilient Germany remains sane and open. Which is why there is no better place for DiEM’s ideas to be tested.

As Varoufakis revs up his engine at the traffic lights of German politics he should consider that the Greens may have left it too late. The urgency of the climate crisis demonstrates that languishing in permanent opposition for years and shouting from the outside brings little change. He is definitely onto something important but he is over-committing on rebellion and risks remaining trapped on the sidelines. If he does intend to make any meaningful difference, late as it is, he might consider a more Merkelian approach: The maddening but strategically imperative coalition-building avenue.


Photo by Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters