In old factory towns, former mining villages, urban slums and rural hamlets across Europe, a shared disillusionment with the political establishment has grown to a level that hasn’t been seen for over a century.
The people who inhabit such places, whatever European nation they happen to reside in, are overwhelmingly those who lost out when the post-war economic settlement was dismantled and deregulated in the 1980s.
Often geographically and socially isolated, they find themselves on the losing side of globalisation. In contrast, the elites live in a cluster of metropolitan cities that are ever more interchangeable: populated by highly mobile, highly skilled workers. These people are the winners in today’s great game of connection, the AirBnB landlord, the frequent Uber customer.
We might ask what, if anything, could unite these two groups? Even if it were possible to take the coder running a startup in East London and transplant her to the Welsh valleys, or the Barcelona PR specialist and ask him to operate out of a rapidly depopulating coal mining town in Asturias, there would still be the far bigger challenge of bridging the divide between the centre and the periphery of the wider European economy.
It is no small irony that the most dramatic reversal of European integration thus far, Brexit, was voted for by many parts of the UK, such as Wales, Cornwall and the North East of England, that benefit the most from EU Regional Development assistance.
It seems that roads and bridges, bus terminals, business centres and new museums (often telling the story of the old industries for visitors) do not revive regional economies that were once built on access to natural resources and manufacturing.
In contrast to the elite cities – which reap the benefits of globalisation with prime geographic locations and immense cultural capital – in the regions there is no logic for the existence of the post-industrial town or city once its economic lifeblood is gone.
European integration, with its grand aim of economic convergence, has not succeeded in eliminating the enormous challenges of internal regional inequality within European nations, let alone the far greater disparities that exist across the trading bloc.
These challenges have been exacerbated due to fears about “cheap labour dumping” or “wholesale importation” of low-wage workers from the more recent EU members in Eastern Europe.
Across Europe social cohesion is weakening, populations are ageing, and the backlash against local impoverishment is in many cases developing a clear xenophobic agenda. People who have the memory of secure long-term employment, and who stand little chance of achieving that again, marry this sense of economic loss to a fear for the survival of their residual cultural identity. Thus far the combination in Europe has been toxic, but it could easily spill forth into outright disaster and disintegration.
Filled with the certainty of this narrative, many forget that large numbers of workers from across the poorer regions of Europe do not move to England or Germany for the cuisine: they move out of desperation, because life at home is no longer economically tenable.
As a result of outward migration and one of the lowest fertility rates on the continent, Poland will see its working-age population fall by or 22 per cent over the next 35 years.
Surprisingly, for the right-wing Law and Justice Party government, the answer is a massive form of redistributive spending, a kind of “basic income for the fertile”.
Poland: "basic income for the fertile"?
In order to address this massive demographic crisis, the Polish government has committed to paying mothers the equivalent €114 a month for every second and subsequent child.
The need to pay people simply for creating more citizens shows that radical policy solutions are emerging as a political necessity from the most unlikely quarters.
Even the most troubled EU economy, Greece, has managed to implement its first universal grant: covering all Greeks below a certain level of income, regardless of employment status, professional category, gender or age – the Social Solidarity Income.
Greece: "Social Solidarity Income"
The SSI is far from an unconditional basic income for all citizens, and it follows a policy route common to other EU countries. However, it does demonstrate that even under the burden of the toughest of austerity regimes, there is a common interest for the rest of Europe in preventing Greeks from sliding below a certain poverty level.
The great challenge for the European project, tested by the Eurozone crisis to the point of exhaustion, is whether a measure of pan-European solidarity can arise to prevent further breakdowns.
Former Greek Finance Minister Yannis Varoufakis has positioned universal basic income as a key part of a proposed “New Deal” that would “reclaim common decency and restore common sense across Europe.”
But the momentum around Basic Income exists in Europe’s wealthiest countries too. In Germany, already home to the first crowdfunded basic income project – a political party dedicated to basic income, Bündnis Grundeinkommen, is standing in the German federal election.
This follows the creation of a working group on basic income by Danish crowdsource based political party Alternativet (The Alternative) at their annual convention, earlier this year.
Germany, Denmark, Scotland:
everyone is talking about basic income
Scottish local authorities in Glasgow and Fife – two areas still recovering from the loss of heavy industry – are currently scoping out basic income pilots, after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon committed the Scottish Government to assisting the projects.
Work is already underway to link up basic income activists and initiatives across the continent, including Unconditional Basic Income Europe (UBIE) which has the specific goal of implementing Basic Income in Europe and its recognition as a Universal Human Right.
UBIE was born out of the European Citizens’ Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income in 2013/14, which gathered the support of over 300,000 EU citizens.
The group has advocated payment of a “Eurodividend” to “counter the forces of disintegration”.
Next month, Barcelona will become the latest active test-bed in Europe for basic income, with the left-wing city council targeting a pilot called B-MINCOME at the poorest barrios in the metropolis.
Barcelona: the latest test-bed for basic income in Europe
B-MINCOME is supported by Urban Innovative Actions, an initiative of the European Commission that supports projects investigating “innovative and creative solutions” in urban areas.
From local government to the apex of power in the European Union, basic income is being discussed, debated and tested.
If the great machinery of the world’s second largest economy could be repurposed to bring together all of its citizens, such a policy would surely be at the top of its agenda.
Why? Because even elites are starting to see that it will take a radical change to turn the shared disillusionment with the European project into a renewed sense of shared hope and common purpose.
The core appeal of basic income is what American academic Frances Fox Piven describes as its “bold simplicity”. Here’s a clip from Fox Piven’s interview for a new feature-length documentary on basic income, Free Lunch Society.
Moving Docs presents Free Lunch Society
This autumn, Moving Docs presents screenings of a new feature-length documentary on basic income, Free Lunch Society, in Belfast, Edinburgh, Barcelona, Warsaw, Berlin, Lisbon, Göteborg, Varberg, Aberdeen. Athens, and Thessaloniki. All details here.
Image sources, from top:
(1) Andrew, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
(2) Joseph Mischyshyn, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
(3) roar-roar, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
(4) Juan Salmoral, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
(5) Clip from Free Lunch Society, Standard YouTube Licence