A matter of common decency

A matter of common decency
Credit: European Council

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
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A matter of common decency

Politics, and people for that matter, have become more polarised in recent years, as fewer parties opt to cultivate the middle-ground. That has also eroded a good chunk of the decency left in politics. It is a trend that is probably going to continue.

Angela Merkel will leave office by the end of the year, as negotiators in Berlin are starting to wrap up coalition talks that will see her CDU party out of power for the first time in over a decade.

Not only does she take with her a feeling of status quo – for many, Angela Merkel is the only German chancellor they have known or been aware of – she also takes with her a way of doing things that can only be labelled as ‘decent’.

Her decision in 2015 to allow a large number of refugees and immigrants into Germany in the wake of the Syrian civil war will define her legacy, as will her now infamous “wir schaffen das” soundbite.

But there are also countless other episodes, a few of which we have seen during these last few weeks of her term in office that, whatever your view on her policies and politics, mean she will always be indelibly marked as a great stateswoman. 


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


At the COP26 climate summit, although Germany has proved to be more of a hindrance than a boost to Europe’s green ambitions when everything is added up, Merkel’s willingness to do the right thing was still on show.

Social democratic leader Olaf Scholz will take over from Merkel once the coalition is in place and the outgoing chancellor used the meeting of world leaders in Glasgow as an opportunity to introduce her successor to many of his future counterparts.

This is how you do a transition. Contrast that with the utter farce of Donald Trump’s refusal to concede to Joe Biden and the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš’ current grousing that he has been removed by “an anti-Babiš cartel”.

“Sore losers” comes to mind but it is also a very dangerous precedent. If a peaceful transition of power cannot be guaranteed, the door is opened to what would have previously been unthinkable power grabs.

Brazil goes to the polls next year and incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro, emboldened by the likes of Trump, is already suggesting that he will not concede if he does not think the elections were fair.

That part of the world admittedly has a more recent history with military coups and armed violence in the streets but slippery slopes are easy to stumble upon if politicians are not looking where they are going.

 

Human touch

Merkel is currently on somewhat of a goodbye tour around Europe, where she has collected more commemorative trophies and medals than she has space for in her garage. This week we also got a rare glimpse of the human side of politicians.

At a ceremony with Emmanuel Macron, the chancellor was visibly touched by the moment and embraced the French president before recomposing herself with trademark Merkel grit. You can watch the video of it here.

Ok, it is just a hug and an awkward la bise but these are the leaders of France and Germany, two countries that just about within living memory fought two bloody wars that cost millions of lives.

Any reminder that the people in charge are human beings is a welcome one. It grounds the decisions they make and, hopefully, creates a feedback loop where their policies are more geared towards actual people.

Another politician that seems to benefit from this ‘human touch’ or, at least, a cultivated image of being a bit of a character and an oddball, is a certain Boris Johnson. The UK prime minister has been in the limelight recently thanks to his hosting of COP26.

But Johnson is illustrative of what happens when common decency and a willingness to work with your political opponents dries up. It is not hard to find examples of this, in fact several of them have happened since your columnist opened this word document.

Earlier in the week, his Conservative party pushed through a vote that would junk the standards committee that polices members of parliament, after one of their colleagues was found guilty of an “egregious case of paid advocacy”.

Johnson’s hefty majority paid off, despite some of his MPs rebelling against the motion. But it appears to have been a misguided move, given that the panel that would take the committee’s place needs to be filled with MPs from other parties.

Labour and the SNP will not play ball so at the risk of putting together an all-Tory watchdog, the plans look to be on ice.

At a more human level, Johnson’s antics at COP26 also include sitting mask-less next to 95-year-old national treasure David Attenborough and an unpleasant situation in which Israel’s energy minister was unable to attend the summit due to a lack of wheelchair accessibility.

Johnson apologised for the latter incident but it was later suggested by one of his colleagues that the minister had gone to the wrong entrance. Such is the culture that can be cultivated by a leader’s own behaviour.

Decency matters in politics and in life. A dose of it can help leaders see past their own interests and beyond borders. For many of the challenges that face us, it may prove to be one of the most effective weapons.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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