EU “has the power” to put in place a universal basic income

Universal Basic Income

UBI flyers. Brussels, 2014. [Flickr]

From Martin Luther King to Erich Fromm, the universal – or unconditional – basic income (UBI) has always had its supporters. The idea is not new. But the economic crisis has brought it back to the forefront “as a solution” to the most pressing issues facing the EU today.

The April 10 conference, dedicated to the Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) in Europe – hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) – gathered well-known writers, philosophers and activists to reflect on the possibilities to introduce the UBI at the EU level.

“The Unconditional Basic Income  is a periodic cash transfer granted to all members of a political community, without work requirement nor means-testing, and high enough to ensure an existence in dignity and participation in society,” the official definition states.

Its aim: ending poverty, but not only, explains Guy Standing, the British economist behind the most famous analyses on the “precariat”, a neologism coined from the words “proletariat” and “precarity”.

“I believe we must see basic income as a question of emancipation, a question of building freedom, building control over life and of social justice, not just as a measure for dealing with poverty. We must understand that the debate on basic income must be seen in the context of a global transformation taking place in which inequalities are becoming unsustainable and we are turning our European economies into “rentier” economies where a tiny plutocracy is gaining income from the system while the growing precariat is facing falling wages, unstable labour and a loss of rights. They are being turned from citizens into “denizens”, losing rights. This is unique,” he told EURACTIV.

Having led “pilot” projects in India and Africa, Standing believes such initiatives should take place in eastern or southern European countries, the poorest ones, and those that were most roughly hit by the crisis. A move that could also help curb economic migration, such as that of Bulgarians and Romanians, the Briton added: I don’t believe in controlling migration. I don’t think it’s right, but I think that if we had a basic income pilot in Bulgaria or Romania or Greece, it would probably limit the distress migration in parts of Europe.”

Europe’s humanitarian crisis

However most of the UBI activists believe that such a move needs to be taken at the level of all 28 member states, in order to be just and effective.

With rising poverty in Europe, even for people in work, the speakers warned that the “European social model is under fierce attack”, as well as the very concept of a basic wage for each European.

“We have a humanitarian crisis in Europe. I am tired of hearing about the economic and financial crisis when there is a social and societal crisis, a deep recession in which the most vulnerable are hit the hardest”, the representative of the European anti-poverty network, Amana Ferro, said.

In a situation where a growing number of people can no longer cater to their basic needs in Europe – one of the richest region in the world – a basic income, or minimum income (methodologies vary from one organisation to the other, but the fundamental concept is the same) becomes also a way to ensure consumption and relaunch the economy, Ferro stressed.

But implementing the UBI goes beyond the economic necessities, the participants said. It is also a way to put an end to the “neo-liberal” crisis in Europe, bring back hope to its citizenry, and counter the rise of racism and xenophobia.

The element of “care” is also shared by UBI veteran, the Belgian philosopher, Philippe Van Parijs.

“It’s very important for the EU to be perceived by the people as a caring union, not only one that lifts protection to promote productivity and benefits for Europeans in a very unequal way. It must be perceived (by) all the Europeans, not only the movers, but also the stay-at-homes, that the EU is doing something for them,” he said in an interview.

The philosopher also sees the UBI as a way of implementing a “transfer union” that would help the European Union out of the financial crisis and save the euro currency, other arguments in favour of what he calls the “euro-dividend” is the effect on “stabilising” the population to avoid the “crowding of the most prosperous cities in the EU by people who are forced to move away just out of necessity”.

>> Read the full interview with Philippe Van Parijs explaining why a UBI for Europe is necessary

UBI at EU level “feasible”

Speakers were unanimous – an unconditional basic income is a “realistic” proposal at EU level, even more realistic than at national level, as Elena Dalibot, from European Alternatives, explained.

“It would be very difficult to implement it at national level. You would need to discriminate against non-nationals, which is not possible according to EU law. It’s also important to do it on a large scale because with the crisis, there is a huge opportunity for the EU to experience and show the rest of the world there are other ways we can imagine society, be at the avant-garde of these changes.”

And to those arguing that the EU is not competent on social policies, the advocates for an EU-wide basic income respond that it is not entirely true.

“While it is true that there are no direct competences, there are legal bases that the EU can use,” Dalibot developed.

“In the Treaty on the European Union, there is article 2 on human dignity and equality and article 3 on social exclusion and social justice and then looking at the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, there are also several articles on the coordination of member states’ social policies and in matters of employment. Then you’ll also find a number of articles in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. All of these have been used by the European Citizens’ Initiative [for UBI] and the  Commission recognises it as valid,” she said, adding that “EU competences are very floating area, and there is always room to push for more competences.

Financing and implementation

Sources of financing would also be some type of EU-wide tax, although proposals can vary. While Van Parijs counts on VAT, “the most Europeanised of all taxes”, to finance the euro-dividend, others would also like to use a future European tax on financial transaction too, taxes on luxury goods, or carbon emission allowances. As Elena Dalibot put it: “The money is there, we lack political will.”

Most likely, such a basic wage would not be a fixed amount in all member states, but would be calculated according to each country’s purchasing power.

Although the official UBI movement generally agrees on what such a wage would look like, many other organisations present at the conference share the principle, but not necessarily the method, such is the case with the Dutch Women’s Party, whose leader, Monique Sperla, would rather see it as a “regressive income”, meaning that the wage would lower as the work income of a person increases and would be scrapped for people earning over €20.000 yearly, making the concept less universal than what the UBI movement advocates.

The idea is generally well received in political parties like the Greens and “left Liberals” like D66 in the Netherlands, as well as left Christian Democrats, Philippe Van Parijs explained, but much less well received in the traditional social democratic or right-wing parties.

“Surprisingly”, trade union movements  tend to be opposed to the idea, Klaus Sambro from UBI Austria said, albeit at the highest level of the unions’ organisations, the lower levels being more friendly to the idea, he stressed.

Some participants also shared their fear of seeing some political movements on the far-right “adopting the UBI principle and then excluding some parts of the population such as migrants, or use the concept to promote neo-liberal ideas and use it to reduce the labour costs.”

Needless to say, the movement will still have to face many questions and challenges before it can be properly implemented, but some European countries have already taken some concrete steps. One of them is Switzerland, where signatures were collected to support its introduction, and a referendum should take place after the federal Council pronounces itself in October 2014. A similar initiative was introduced in Spain, and signatures are being collected until January 2015, without any support from political parties or trade unions whatsoever, the Spanish representative said.

The Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) is a periodic cash transfer granted to all members of a political community, without work requirement nor means-testing, and high enough to ensure an existence in dignity and participation in society. UBI shall not replace the welfare state but does complete and transform the same from a compensatory into an emancipatory welfare state. The emancipatory Unconditional Basic Income is defined by the following four criteria: universal, individual, unconditional, high enough to ensure an existence in dignity and participation in society.

Universal: In principle every person, irrespective of age, descent, place of residence, profession etc. will be entitled to receive this allocation. 

Individual: Every woman, every man, every child has the right to a basic income on an individual basis, and definitely not on a couple or household basis. The Unconditional Basic Income will be independent of their circumstances: of marital status, cohabitation or household configuration, or of the income or property of other household or family members. This is the only way to ensure privacy and to prevent control over other individuals. It enables individuals to make their own decisions.

Unconditional:basic income is regarded as a human right which shall not depend on any preconditions, whether an obligation to take paid employment, to be involved in community service, or to behave according to traditional gender roles. Nor will it be subject to income, savings or property limits.

High enough: The amount should provide for a decent standard of living, which meets society’s social and cultural standards in the country concerned. It should prevent material poverty and provide the opportunity to participate in society. This means that the net income should, at a minimum, be at the poverty-risk level according to EU standards, which corresponds to 60% of the so-called national median net equivalent income. Especially in countries where the majority have low incomes, and therefore median income is low, an alternative benchmark (e.g. a basket of goods) should be used to determine the amount of the basic income, to guarantee a life in dignity, material security and full participation in society.

  • October 2014: Deadline for the Swiss Federal Council's study of the Unconditional Basic Income citizens' initiative
  • January 2015: Deadline for the Spanish citizens' initiative for collecting signatures for the introduction of UBI

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