The health crisis is reopening the debate about a living wage or an unconditional allowance. The ministers of the Portuguese, Spanish and Italian governments are calling for the creation of a European minimum income system and for solidarity to minimise the consequences of the health crisis. According to the three countries, the EU needs a common minimum income that is not limited to the survival level or poverty rate calculated on the basis of the EU average income, but rather depends on a legally binding framework. This would enable all Member States to establish an adequate minimum income that is adapted to the standard of living in each country.
The proposal, published on 8 May in the newspaper Público, is defended in a joint text signed by the Portuguese Minister for Labour, Solidarity and Social Security, Ana Mendes Godinho, the Vice-President of the Spanish Government, Minister for Social Rights and Agenda 2030, Pablo Iglesias, and the Italian Minister for Labour and Social Policy, Nunzia Catalfo.
" We must ensure that all people are guaranteed their basic needs. We, therefore, need a common minimum income system to combat poverty and social exclusion in an ambitious and integrated way", said the leaders in the article "Towards an EU Minimum Income".
Europe needs a common framework
The three signatories of the article stated that the EU needs a common minimum income framework, which is not limited to survival levels or the poverty ratio calculated on the basis of the EU average income, but rather a legally binding framework, allowing all Member States to establish an adequate minimum income adapted to the standard of living and lifestyle of each country. " "We support the approach that has been adopted to tackle this crisis, which is based on the principle that no one is left behind and which pays particular attention to the most vulnerable groups. We therefore support the establishment of an initiative to support the spread of decent and adequate minimum income schemes in all Member States", they said.
The three ministers stress that Europe is currently facing the " greatest challenge since the Second World War ": combating the Covid-19 pandemic by saving as many lives as possible. The social and economic impacts of this crisis, they write, are beginning to be felt at the national and European levels, with a particular focus on the labor market, with profound repercussions on the lives of citizens. " It is time for the European Union to look to the future and pursue its programme, with a view to presenting an action plan for the implementation of the European pillar of social rights and thus launching a "European social shield"". they say.
The three ministers insist on the " most vulnerable groups " and the need for "ambitious and courageous" solidarity measures to avoid the risk of poverty and social exclusion. " Today, Europe has more than 113 million people at risk of poverty and social exclusion and 25 million children living below the poverty line. We must take urgent action to avoid increasing this number and instead help to reduce it". they say.
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The Covid-19 crisis amplifies all the risks...
For the signatories of this forum, the situation is amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore requires comprehensive and integrated solutions, in addition to all ongoing national measures. " Europe must unite around solidarity. A coordinated European response is needed to avoid a new economic and social crisis like the one we experienced after the 2008 crisis". they say in the text.
The Covid-19 health crisis is coupled with an economic crisis that is predicted to be the worst since the Second World War. Fears are growing that unemployment will soar and that more and more people will be welcomed into social protection systems hardened by thirty years of liberal reforms.
There are many voices calling for a universal device. In Germany, a petition to this effect by the designer Tonia Merz collected more than 460,000 signatures and was sent to the Bundestag. In the United Kingdom, 170 parliamentarians have called for unconditional aid for all during the crisis. This idea was rejected by the Finance Minister, Rishi Sunak.
In a open letter circulated on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis spoke in favour of a universal basic wage to " honor the essential and noble work" of modest workers."Street vendors, scrap merchants, fairground workers, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, various caretakers" are " totally invisible in the system," the head of the Catholic Church said.
In France, the idea is not new, but it is resonating again as the health crisis has highlighted the fragility of precarious workers. " Those who do not have access to short-time working or the right to withdraw, even for non-essential activities, such as digital platform deliverers like Deliveroo, have no financial guarantees if they stop working to protect their health". Nicole Teke, spokesperson for the French Movement for a Basic Income (MFRB), created in 2013, told told France 24. " There are holes in social security, we want a real security base for everyone." she continued.
At the crossroads
The issue of universal income financing is also a recurrent source of debate. However, we can only conclude today that there is a poor distribution of wealth, which has led to the scrapping of public services, such as hospitals and research, which have been sacrificed on the altar of economic profitability. The Secretary of State to the Minister of the Economy and Finance hammered this point home during the debates on the rectifying finance bill in the Senate: "The priority is to save businesses. The priority is to save companies". And indeed, billions are urgently released to respond to structural problems in a specific way, without questioning the system as a whole.
The Basic Income is also at the crossroads of these paths: implemented in an emergency context, in a short-termistic logic and outside any democratic debate, it would serve as nothing more and nothing less than a spare wheel for neoliberalism, as can already be seen in certain contexts. This is the case in the United States, where President Trump has announced that he wants to send a cheque for $1,200 to the most precarious populations ($500 for children). This will be a one-off, short-term emergency response, since it will be just one cheque, in a society where the very fact of being hit by Covid-19 can lead to ruin. (See tribune of the Mouvement Français pour un Revenu de Base - MFRB)
On the other hand, other voices such as those of the signatories of the forum in Publico propose strengthening social safety nets through the establishment of a universal income, as part of a long-term transformation project for European countries.
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These voices are echoed in Europe facing the specter of recession. On 6 May, the European Commission presented a rather alarmist spring forecast, according to which the EU would experience the worst recession in its history, with a 7.4% drop in its economy.
Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, points out that these forecasts could even turn out to be optimistic because the extent of the global economic crisis depends entirely on the development of the pandemic. If protectionist attitudes were to dominate international trade, he warns, Europe would be the biggest loser.
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The institutions are currently preparing the EU's economic response to the impact of VIDOC-19, which is fuelling the debate. "We are still working on how to organize solidarity," acknowledges the Head of Foreign Affairs.