Philosopher and economist Philippe Van Parijs is one of the leading basic income theorists in the world. Today he supports the campaign to establish an unconditional basic income system within the member states of the European Union.
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on an unconditional basic income was launched Sept. 20. Its goal is to collect one million signatures in the European Union by next year. What does it consist of?
Once the signatures are validated by the member states, the Commission has six months to formulate an official response and indicate which action — if any — it is going to take. During this period, the organizers of the initiative are entitled to a meeting with the Commission and a hearing in a European Parliament. The ECI is not calling for an EU-wide basic income, but for “the introduction of unconditional basic incomes throughout the EU.” If they had called for an EU-wide basic income, the ECI would probably have been declared non-admissible, as the EU currently has no direct competence in social policy.
What have they done to ensure that the initiative is admissible?
To guarantee admissibility, the initiators referred to a joint statement made in 2017 “by the Council and the representatives of the governments of the Member States meeting within the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission” which contains the following sentence: “To combat inequality, the EU and its Member States will also support efficient, sustainable and equitable social protection systems to guarantee basic income, prevent relapses into extreme poverty and build resilience.” The French version used the expression “revenu minimum” for “basic income”, but the German version used “Grundeinkommen” and the Italian version “reddito di base.” This made it difficult for the Commission to declare the initiative non-admissible, even with “unconditional” being discreetly added to “basic income.” But “unconditional basic incomes throughout the EU” (in the plural) remains very different from an EU-wide unconditional basic income.
Is it possible to conceive of a basic income at the continental level?
There is nothing stopping us from advocating an EU-wide basic income — what I called a eurodividend — but it is not the object of the initiative. In my view, the sort of level worth speculating about is €200 on average, somewhat higher in countries with a high cost of living, somewhat lower in countries with a low cost of living. Obviously, the purpose would not be, to use the phrasing of the initiative, to “ensure every person’s material existence and opportunity to participate in society.” The function of a eurodividend would rather be that of a macroeconomic and demographic stabilizer and it would be meant to make national social protection systems more robust, not to replace them.
What’s the way to finance it at the EU level?
To fund it, we would need a very large tax base — not just international transactions or the profits of multinationals, for example — and one that can be defined homogeneously throughout the EU. For pragmatic reasons, the VAT is therefore the most plausible option. Even at this level of 200 euros per month, this would require a VAT rate of about 19%.
What role should EU member states play?
The formulation of the ECI is consistent with the member states being entirely responsible for implementation and funding. If a eurodividend were in place, the administrations of the member states would need to be involved in the implementation, so as to avoid wasteful duplication.
Once a Universal Basic Income (UBI) system is established at the EU level, if one of the EU member states refuses to adopt it, what would you recommend to those who wish to claim it?
If you satisfy the conditions for getting a eurodividend and do not get it, you complain to the administration concerned and, if necessary, you go to court.
In the coronovirus emergency a temporary European Welfare system is envisaged: lay-off schemes, support to self employed workers and probably an EU minimum wage. Today, however, basic income is not one of the priorities of the Recovery Fund. Why?
Because an EU-wide basic income would be revolutionary twice over: its being universal and its being trans-national. You cannot expect to be able to run if you cannot even walk. Among the measures you mention, the most relevant is an EU-wide unemployment insurance. Many formulas have been discussed in recent years. The one that is emerging is among the most timid. But an EU-funded unemployment benefit system could be a first step towards structural transnational interpersonal redistribution — a set up that exists nowhere in the world and of which a eurodividend would be a far bolder illustration.
How could an EU basic income interact with this system?
An EU-wide means-tested minimum income would create havoc because it would interfere with national means-tested schemes. By contrast, an EU-wide basic income would simply be a floor to be topped up, according to their wishes and their means, by the social policies of each member state, duly recalibrated.
In Italy, Prime Minister Conte, the Five Stars Movement and the Italian Democratic Party want to develop the actual “reddito di cittadinanza” (citizenship income) in terms of an active labor market policy. In a recession that will last for years, where there will be a lack of work, isn’t there a risk to humiliate unemployed and poor people?
A setup that expects people to find what is impossible to find and blames them for not finding it can only breed demoralization, resentment and revolt. For most people it is possible to find some activity which they would not mind doing and that pays something. But for many people in these times, in certain areas and with certain skills, it is unimaginable to find such an activity that pays, in net terms, at least as much as the reddito du cittananza or similar means-tested minimum schemes in other countries. The key difference that a universal basic income would make its that it can be combined with any income from another source, albeit initially only very part-time or on an occasional basis, without any bureaucratic complication. It thereby facilitates getting out of the trap intrinsic to means-tested schemes.
What is your reply to those who argue that basic income is a deterrent for looking for a job and it only rewards lazy people?
One can understand that recipients of means-tested benefits who cannot hope to find a job that pays at least as much as their means-tested benefits try to reconcile themselves with their situation by redirecting their aspirations away from (declared) paid employment. Compared to means-tested schemes such as the reddito du cittadinanza, an unconditional basic income increases the material incentive to work. At the same time, to prevent unscrupulous employers from using the basic income as a subsidy for lousy jobs, it removes the obligation to accept employment as a condition for being entitled to a benefit. The Finnish basic income experiment showed that, when shifting from a conditional scheme to a basic income, the net effect on employment — stronger incentives, no obligation — could be positive.
Can “reddito di cittadinanza” (citizenship income) evolve towards a basic income in Italy?
Yes. Conditional minimum income schemes are an important achievement in the fight against extreme poverty. Once in place they pave the way for further progress towards an unconditional basic income for two reasons. Firstly, they make more people aware of the defects intrinsic to these schemes such as the unemployment trap, stigmatization and a poor rate of take-up among the target group. Secondly, because they are in principle ensuring that every resident has at least some income, they make the transition to an unconditional basic income easier, both administratively and financially: a basic income is simply a more efficient and fair way of securing this minimum income to all.
***One million signatures online in 28 countries: where to sign
By Sept. 24, 2021, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) asking the EU Commission to establish unconditional basic incomes in EU countries will have to collect one million signatures across the continent. At that point, the European Parliament and the EU Commission will have to discuss the opportunity to introduce this measure through formal bills. In Italy, you can sign on the following sites: www.bin-italia.org and eci-ubi.eu. In 20 days, 8% of the necessary signatures have been collected. In Italy at least 53,000 signatures are needed, while the target is 107,000. Slovenia is also going strong with 57%, Greece with 22%, Hungary with 19%, Spain with 16%.
***Philippe Van Parijs:
Philippe Van Parijs teaches at the University of Louvain and is a founding member of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), the worldwide network that has been promoting a basic income since 1986. The Italian hub of the network is the Basic Income Network (BIN Italia). Among his published works, we find Basic Income. A radical proposal (ed. Il Mulino, with Yannick Vanderborght). Already in 1995, in the book Real Freedom for All, he argued for the feasibility and justice of a basic income as one of the foundations of social freedom.