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Success or failure? A discussion of the outcome of the ECI Unconditional Basic Income in Germany

Success or failure? That is the question supporters in Germany of an Unconditional Basic Income have to ask themselves following the end, on 14 January, of the European Citizens’ Initiative, which for technical reasons did not quite run for a full year.


Instead of the one million signatures hoped for, it mustered only around 285,000 in the member states of the EU. The low figure in Germany of around 40,000 signatures is considered especially surprising, given that supporters there can look back on almost ten years of public discussion of the issue. Similar petitions submitted to the German Bundestag by Susanne Wiest in 2008 (Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen) or by Inge Hannemann last year (Abschaffung der Sanktionen bei Arbeitslosengeld II) gathered more signatures in only six weeks. What can the reason have been?

A few supporters of BIN have now speculated publicly as to possible causes, and their speculations are very self-critical. In a blog for “Freedom, Not Full Employment”, I came out against the explanation for the outcome advanced by the council of the Netzwerk Grundeinkommen (Basic Income Network) in Germany. It seemed to me that the reasons for the failure set out there did not go far enough. I was also uncomfortable with the way the failure was somehow being transformed in the final analysis into a success on the grounds that the ECI had led to the founding of UBI initiatives in some EU member countries.

What does the discussion revolve around?

The Network council thinks that the principal causes of the failure of the ECI were bureaucratic obstacles: the “complicated signature process” and the delayed start, the restrictive rules on the text of the petition and the lack of “financial support from the EU for transnational organisation and coordination”. Lastly, the “lack of understanding among EU citizens of the European dimension of social and citizens’ rights issues” was another cause identified by the council.

In my view, however, these largely procedural obstacles overlie deeper reasons for the low participation rate in Germany and possibly also in other countries. One such deeper reason, I argued, is the democratic deficit in the EU. This can be seen very clearly in the non-binding status of the request voiced by the ECI. The ECI is non-binding on account of the requirements imposed by the EU Commission on the initiators. In fact, its non-binding character is its essential characteristic, as it is merely an “invitation to the European Commission” to which, at most, “…the Commission gives a formal response spelling out what action it will propose in response to the citizens’ initiative, if any, and the reasons for doing or not doing so” . Instead of initiating legislation – as is the case for example in Switzerland – it is merely a request, a petition. Precisely this fact has been explicitly criticised, for example by the Pirate Party in Germany. This being the case, anybody who signs this or any other ECI is voicing their assent to its non-binding character. And anybody who doesn’t agree with that should logically not sign. The failure of the ECI could be interpreted as a success for the spirit or principle of citizenship: the citizens will not be led around by the nose.

I pointed out that the rationale set out in the ECI was problematic. Although the “citizens”   of the EU are addressed there, their status as constituents of the EU is not acknowledged. According to the rationale in the ECI, “every person, irrespective of age,  descent, place of residence, profession etc. will be entitled to receive this allocation”, i.e. the UBI. At another point the text reads: “[t]he Unconditional Basic Income brings about social freedom, helps citizens to identify with the European Union…”. Identification is not primarily dependent on money, but it is certainly dependent on being taken seriously as a citizen. In democracies, which profess a belief in inalienable human rights, citizens represent the constituent foundation. It is only through such a specific common body of citizens that human rights acquire practical force, because they hold good for everyone in the sovereign territory. The bearers of the political order are not the “people”, or “persons”, or the “population” – the bearers are the citizens of the state, or of the Union. Anybody who has read the rationale in the ECI would therefore have to ask themselves what is the position of the initiative regarding the status of the citizens, and how it wants the civic structure within the EU to develop. That would be reason enough to withhold a signature.

I also suggested it was worth considering whether the decision of the initiators and supporters to seek votes first and foremost online might have been a causal factor for the low number of signatures obtained. Simply because something seems to make financial and technical sense doesn’t necessarily mean it makes sense in political terms.  If what you are campaigning for is a new way of doing things – and UBI would certainly be that – then it is all the more incumbent on you to actively court the support of your fellow citizens. Collecting votes on the street makes an impression: for one thing, it creates a personal contact and allows the object of your courtship to feel directly just how important their signature is to you. This is an important aspect of the decision whether or not to sign. For another thing, personal contact enables discussion. Here I made a comparison with the Federal People’s Initiative (or referendum) “For an Unconditional Basic Income” in Switzerland, whose supporters reported exactly this experience when collecting signatures on the streets. Notwithstanding a substantial local tradition of direct democracy, only massive engagement on the streets ensured its success. It was only once the “Basic Income Generation” had succeeded in giving the signature collection process a new and different character that the pendulum swung. A country’s size is significant in this respect not as an absolute factor, as Otto Lüdemann’s objection maintained, but only relative to the commitment and number of the activists involved.

It is true, as the Network council wrote, that the ECI was a big campaign. But whether it brought people into contact with the idea for the first time, and how many, it is impossible to say. The number of signatories tells us nothing about how much the citizens knew about UBI beforehand, let alone whether they will now spread what they know – that is, what they will do in future. The Network council presents such future activity as a given fact. It may turn out that way, but nobody can know that for certain. It would be very welcome. The issue of how it would be spread is also important. Are we to take Facebook ‘likes’, an exchange of links or Avaaz-petitions as evidence of activity that brings results? The lessons learned from the German discussion are particularly instructive about how quickly involvement can be generated and how quickly it can collapse and disappear. What happened to the involvement demonstrated by the many signatories to Susanne Wiest’s petition? Where are the 53,000 supporters? It didn’t lead to a corresponding expansion of the debate. So we have to wait and see what this initiative leads to, and whether the European Network “Unconditional Basic Income Europe” – however much we might want it to – will in reality contribute to taking the discussion forward. Some supporters may find my less than enthusiastic response to this “success” irritating. However, ten years of public discussion in Germany and the related experience have taught me that not every new alliance – how striking it might be – immediately guarantees a step forward in the debate.

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  1. I shared this petition on facebook a lot and wrote explanatory introductions to encourage a response. I find a general lack of interest in anything political anyway, so it wasn’t surprising to me that only a few of my friends responded. The algarhythm that facebook uses to push posts onto friends’ newsfeeds also hinders sharing this kind of petition. I did get a few negative reactions to the idea. People could not imagine how it would work, or where the money was going to come from to fund the project. I wrote about how Alaska distributes a small universal income and how that is funded, but this idea really didn’t make sense to a lot of people who just could not imagine how funding would work. It also seemed very alien to culture to some. “money for nothing” seems immoral to many, just because capitalist culture pushes the work culture so heavily in its value system.

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In the debate, 18/02/14


Translations: PL  


The sovereign bail-outs of Greece, Ireland, Spain and other countries are often framed as loans handed out to the poor, irresponsible countries of the periphery by rich, responsible countries like Germany. They might come with very harsh conditions attached, but their aim is nonetheless to help the recipients. But is that really the case? A closer look actually reveals a more disturbing side to the bail-outs, which begs the question: is it the debtors or the creditors that ultimately are being rescued?

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