More than fifty delegates, of all ages and from sixteen countries, gathered at the European Parliament in Brussels on the 26th and 27th April 2012 to discuss an exciting new venture: a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) entitled ‘Unconditional Basic Income’ (UBI). This was the inspiration of Klaus Sambor from Austria. Together with a group of people who met in Vienna in October 2011, he put together a text in English which was circulated to interested parties for comment prior to the Brussels meeting. This initiative has been possible because on April 1, 2012 a new participatory tool was born: the European Citizens’ Initiative. From now on, we – the citizens of the European Union – have the same right as a majority in the European Parliament and the Member States: to contribute to setting the political agenda for the whole continent. (The European Citizens’ Initiative Pocket Guide, by Bruno Kaufmann, published by the Green European Foundation, March 2012, www.gef.eu.)
The purpose of the meeting in Brussels was to agree the text of the ‘Unconditional Basic Income’ paper for the introduction of an ECI into the Parliament, asking the EU to speed up the introduction of a UBI. The paper comprised a short section that introduced the topic of a UBI, setting out the objectives and defining what was meant by a UBI. The major part was taken up by referring to Articles in various pieces of legislation, including the Treaty on European Union, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, March 2010. The introduction of a UBI would help the Parliament to fulfil its obligations under each of the specified Articles.
The meeting was hosted in the European Parliament by Gerald Häfner, MEP for the Green Party in Germany, who welcomed the delegates on the Thursday afternoon. Then Werner Rätz, also from Germany, led an interesting debate on the social context for the introduction of both an ECI and the UBI: changing employment patterns and inadequate income maintenance systems, which had led to widespread poverty, and to increasing inequality between rich and poor. Participants deplored the punitive and controlling nature of the various social security systems within the EU.
Klaus Sambor then went over the first definitive part of the document, giving the purposes for, and definition of, the UBI, indicating why certain wordings had been chosen. ‘The emancipatory “Unconditional Basic Income” is defined by the following four criteria: universal, individual, unconditional, and high enough to ensure an existence in dignity and participation in society.’ He said that the UBI does not replace the welfare state, but completes it and transforms it from a compensatory into an emancipatory one. He explained that only the four criteria for the UBI would be specified, and not any particular means of funding it at this stage. He felt that it was important to get the idea of the UBI accepted first, and to fight the sources-of-funding battle later. It was recognised that it would be up to each member state to work out its particular means of implementing its own scheme, but that the EU would probably have to be involved directly to some extent.
The initial explanation was followed by the first of the two purposes of the conference, which was to discuss the subject matter and objectives of the document. Part of the discussion revolved around the question as to whether one should change the definition of the UBI in order to increase the chance of its being adopted. However, it was agreed that some things were inviolable, such as the unconditional nature of the UBI. Even then, because its presence would alienate the Trade Unions, some recommended the removal of the clause which referred to there being no obligation to work (inserted to illustrate the unconditional nature of the UBI). The discussion went on past its allotted time of six o’clock, after which the delegates were invited to a drinks reception beside an exhibition comprising photographs and other documents from Ojivero-Omitara in Namibia, showing the tremendously beneficial lasting effects of the Basic Income experiment conducted during 2008 and 2009.
During the evening some modest changes were made to the document. The following morning, the company reassembled in order to approve the final draft of the ECI. Some further discussion took place about the wording of the ‘universality’ criterion, with respect to who should be eligible, whether the ‘European citizen’ (with its legal connotations), or a ‘member’, ‘inhabitant’, ‘legal resident’ or just ‘resident’ of the European Union. In the end, those present voted to refer to the UBI as a human right, without specifying the population, again leaving that battle for a later date.
In the end, the clause about there being ‘no obligation to work’ as an example of the ‘unconditionality’ criterion remained, even though members of the Italian basic income network, Bin Italia, were very pessimistic, feeling that it would make it almost impossible to achieve any success in Italy, because of the antipathy from the Trade Unions.
During these sometimes fierce debates, I was reminded of the Basic Income Research Group / Citizen’s Income Trust early discussions. After the relief of meeting some other basic income enthusiasts in 1983, I was surprised to discover how hotly we debated the finer details of our favourite schemes. Back then, as in Brussels, it took us some time to work out what our objectives were, and what was the instrument. Did we want a BI for its own sake, or because it fulfilled certain objectives? We noted that some good unintended consequences would follow, so should these also be listed with the objectives? We had to learn how to prioritise objectives.
Bin Italia had provided an alternative version of the ECI document, the purpose of which was to ensure that the group followed the procedures set out for the introduction of an ECI closely. They were in favour of having less precise definitions of a UBI, so that the EU would have less reason to reject the idea out of hand as inadmissible, and also to appeal to a wider set of interest groups, thus widening participation. Some of their ideas were adopted and were put into the final draft, but Bin Italia felt strongly that there should have been a proposal to vote for either their version or the previous one, but this did not happen.
In the end, compromise has to be reached because one cannot please everyone. I myself would have preferred a slightly different definition of the UBI, which would have emphasised that it was not means-tested, and that it was not just assessed on an individual basis, but also delivered to each adult recipient on an individual basis too. I would also have liked non-selectivity to be introduced as a concept, where the amounts that are received are not based on different characteristics, such as gender, age, marital status or household composition, to distinguish it from the unconditionality concept, where the right to the UBI would not depend on preconditions being met.
The second main purpose of the conference was to draw up the outline of a Campaign for the ECI. This requires obtaining the signatures of one million (1,000,000) EU citizens, out of its five hundred million inhabitants, either through a website, or by the usual signed petition, within a period of one year. A Citizens Committee was set up, comprising an organiser (together with at least two substitutes in case the need should arise) from each country present, to help to organise the campaign. The task is to specify some succinct wording on the petition, and to obtain legal advice to make sure that the wording and process of the ECI conforms to EU legislation: otherwise the Parliament could reject the ECI out of hand. Gerald Häfner was very helpful in giving some overall guidance about how to present an ECI to the Parliament, and he suggested strategies. Klaus Sambor and Ronald Blaschke (who had also been closely involved in the development of the ECI document) were voted as Chair and Vice Chair of the committee respectively. It was agreed that the first meeting of the committee will be held on the 7th and 8th July in Paris. It is hoped that the preparatory arrangements will be made in time for the Campaign to be launched on the afternoon of Sunday the 16th September, the last day of the 14th BIEN Congress, to be held near Munich, Germany.
I am left feeling excited about this new enterprise, but also feeling rather humble as, so often on the continent, all those around could communicate in many languages, while I could merely offer my one and only. I am also left with a warm glow of having been with a group of friendly people, who all believe that ‘human beings are more important than the economy’.