Debating minimum and basic income

Social Platform has been a strong defender of adequate minimum income schemes throughout the European Union for years. Our main claims are presented in our position paper on an EU Directive on adequate minimum income schemes, and we will actively advocate for their integration in the upcoming European Pillar of Social Rights.

Nevertheless, in light of growing interest among academics, politicians and citizens in Europe, it is necessary for Social Platform to begin examining and exchanging views on the issue of basic income as well. Several experiments have been launched to test their impact (including in Finland and Utrecht), a referendum on the issue was organised last year in Switzerland, and Benoît Hamon, the socialist candidate running in the French presidential election, made it one of the most essential points of his manifesto.

Last Thursday [9 February], Social Platform members were given the opportunity to discuss both topics with two well-known experts: Anne Van Lancker, Project Policy Coordinator of the European Minimum Income Network (EMIN), and Philippe Van Parijs, Professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain and one of the founders of the Basic Income European Network (BIEN).

Anne Van Lancker described minimum income schemes as essential safety nets to prevent people from falling into the poverty trap, but also as economically sound instruments since the money spent on these schemes immediately re-enters the real economy. Minimum income schemes, however, only work if set at adequate levels. A commonly used benchmark is 60% of national median income, although this should be tested against reference budgets (budgets corresponding to “baskets” of goods and services considered necessary to reach an acceptable standard of living). As shown by an EMIN report published in 2015, most EU Member States have minimum income schemes set at a level far below this threshold, and even lower than 20% of national median income in several Eastern European countries. It is therefore very positive to see that EMIN was awarded a new grant to advocate for progress on this matter, and that trade unions will be involved in this initiative.

Philippe Van Parijs highlighted some of the key differences between the two schemes, underlining that basic income schemes are strictly individual (with no condition regarding the income of other members of a household), truly universal (allocated to all citizens regardless of their employment status) and not related to any obligation of availability on the labour market. As basic income schemes can be very costly, Philippe Van Paris proposes as a first step a Euro-wide social dividend of approximately €200 a month (with possible variations in function of the cost of living) and financed by VAT that could create a stronger sense of belonging to a common community among Europeans. This basic income would not replace, but top-up, existing social assistance and social insurance benefits.

Despite their differences, it’s important to recognise that both minimum income and basic income schemes share common features and objectives. Both Anne Van Lancker and Philippe Van Parijs denounce strict conditions (and sometimes humiliating procedures) linked to the allocation of benefits that decrease their coverage and take-up. They also agree on the fact that guaranteed income does not raise the dependency of beneficiaries, but conversely it empowers them and makes them able to look for decent jobs. As Anne Van Lancker concluded, in view of regular attacks on social policies in the EU, it is more important than ever to focus on what unites us.