Leaders of the European Union may be breathing a sigh of relief at the election of Emmanuel Macron as president of France — and many in the media are treating the outcome as a firewall against the wave of populism that led to Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.
But with less than a week before Macron moves into Élysée Palace, he can count on having a short political honeymoon. Many Europeans, including the 34 percent of French citizens who did not vote for Macron, are frustrated by a stagnant economy and years of stubbornly high unemployment. And much of these citizens’ invective is directed at the European Union, which is often viewed as wasteful, overreaching and aloof to the concerns and needs of most of the bloc’s 508 million citizens.
The time has come for EU and national leaders to find new ways to cope with outsourced manufacturing, automation and the continent’s high cost of living. And citizens are warming up to new ideas that go beyond the usual debates over trade deals, tax increases, or cuts and labor protections. One idea to which Europeans are increasingly open is a universal basic income, according to the Berlin-based research firm Dalia.
A survey the firm completed earlier this spring revealed that at least 68 percent of Europeans would vote “yes” on a referendum to introduce some level of a basic income – a slight increase from the same survey last year. And while over half say they want to wait until they see the results of pilots currently underway elsewhere in Europe or abroad, almost a third say they want to see it introduced as soon as possible.
Of course, many Europeans feel trepidation about rolling out a universal basic income as no widely scaled system has ever been implemented. Most on the left say such a mechanism would help citizens cope with volatility in the labor markets and factors such as automation and offshoring. Those on the right often say it could be far easier to administer than a bevy of social welfare programs. Others say it can change the life we live, from one focused on relentless economic growth to one that fosters sustainable development.
But concerns abound across the political spectrum, and understandably so. Over half of those surveyed by Dalia say they are concerned that a basic income would encourage people to stop working. And in a sign that populism and nativism are hardly going away, 39 percent agreed with the statement that “foreigners might come to my country and take advantage of the benefit.”
Obviously, budgets are a concern in rolling out a basic income program. But policymakers should take a look at how Europeans said they would react individually if such a program were in place. Almost 40 percent of the survey’s respondents said it would not have an impact on their work choices, while close to 20 percent said they would spend more time with their family. People also said they may have more time to do volunteer work or gain additional skills. In fact, more respondents said they would work as freelancers than those who said they would simply stop working, which totaled only 4 percent.
The quantitative value of those qualitative benefits will be difficult to enumerate, but they should not be overlooked. The bottom line is that many citizens are simply stressed out with the daily, weekly and monthly grinds of meeting expenses.
A few pilots are underway that could either bolster or weaken the ongoing arguments concerning the rollout of a universal basic income. Finland is paying 560 euros (US$611) a month to 2,000 citizens to gauge whether it can solve problems related to unemployment and poverty while reducing the cost of bureaucracy. In the Netherlands, Utrecht is one of four cities that will pay citizens almost $1,000 to test the concept of a basic income – with participating citizens subjected different levels of rules and restrictions. Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, is launching a pilot later this year. And in Kenya, an NGO has undertaken a long-term project to see if unconditional cash transfers can lift people out of poverty.
Here in the U.S., there is little talk of such a system, though one minor party candidate in California says he has a plan. In Alaska, a check residents receive annually thanks to the state’s oil production is a universal basic income to many observers, only branded differently.
If insanity is defined as doing the same things repeatedly only to expect different results, that argument has certainly become true on both sides of the pond. Policies that have been in place for decades are not working for many citizens. In France, concerns over the lack of work opportunities merit a discussion that reaches beyond whether or not the 35-hour French work week is sacrosanct or in need of an overhaul.
So far, any debate over a universal basic income has not gone far in the country. One candidate for the French presidency, Benoit Hamon, suggested such a monthly payment, but his candidacy floundered and he received only 6.4 percent of the vote in the first round – though, in fairness, he was saddled by being in the same party as the unpopular incumbent president.
With no political party backing him, Macron needs to find ideas that appeal to both the left and right. An openness to testing out a universal basic income in some of France’s hardest hit industrial regions could be a signal that he is truly coming from the “radical center.”
Image credit: World Economic Forum/Flickr