Universal basic income (UBI), the radically simple idea that everyone should receive a periodic cash payment from the government, is on the agenda and part of the public debate across the globe. Regardless of whether you deem UBI affordable or politically feasible, the proposal raises crucial questions about society today, from its economic structure to the very idea of citizenship.

Green circles and movements have always been interested in basic income, seeing its potential for enhancing individual freedoms and capacities. But there are many sides and nuances to the debate, which today extends across the political spectrum.

The Green European Journal asked experts, activists, and politicians active on basic income around Europe and in or around the Green galaxy about the basic income debate in their country or region. The second question of this Green Observatory seeks to map progressive responses to basic income.

Belgium – Kim Evangelista

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

Universal basic income is massively debated in Belgium. It has been the topic of many conferences, debates, studies, and press coverage in the past few years. The main drivers steering the public debate in favour of the proposal have been automation and the future of work and the job market (how to fund social security if we have fewer workers paying social contributions and how to untie income, social protection, economic growth, employment, and work), fighting poverty and inequalities (a universal and unconditional income for those who fall outside the safety net of social security) and the necessity to adapt social protection to the reality of today (the need to individualise social rights to ensure neutrality regarding the different types of households and to make it more simple and automatic).

Yet the debate is difficult. The proposition is perceived by many as utopian, impossible to finance or too radical to function properly alongside the existing social protection or tax system. Furthermore, the idea that only those who have contributed or those who really need it should benefit from social protection is still anchored in mentalities.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country?

Apart from the Greens, political parties in Belgium are cautious and suspicious of universal basic income to say the least. Even though some prominent members of the socialist or the liberal parties voiced their support of a UBI, nothing concrete was proposed. On the right side of the political spectrum, people see basic income as a way to fight efficiently the unemployment trap (since you keep your income whether you work or not), to facilitate entrepreneurship and new life choices, and to avoid bureaucracy and heavy controls. But they fear the cost of the proposition and the necessity for new taxes. The Left is attracted to the way a UBI can make social protection more universal by avoiding non-take up of social rights and stigmatisation but they fear it could weaken existing social security. Unions are strong opponents of the idea. Furthermore, forces from both left and right are concerned that a UBI would undermine the importance of work in our society.

England & Wales – Natalie Bennett

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

Universal basic income is now a major element in the discussion of the future of welfare provision in the UK. One reason for that is the disastrous failure of the government’s policy of ‘universal credit’, which takes means testing to the extreme in a system that is not working technically and is leaving households destitute. That is in the context of a society with high levels of zero-hours contracts, low pay and benefit sanctions, which hit particularly the most vulnerable, meaning many are left unable to afford the bare essentials (1.5 million people in 2017). That all feeds into a desire for major change. These factors combine with the UK element of the broader international debate about the likely impact of automation on employment, which is also a regular topic of discussion.

There is increasing general awareness of the policy, and considerable public support. A recent poll found 41 per cent public support, with only 17 per cent opposed. There is even good support from Conservative supporters.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country?

The Green Party of England and Wales has been committed to a universal basic income (originally called a ‘citizens’ income’) almost from its creation. That is also the case for the Scottish Green Party. This commitment was linked to it being seen that the provision of security is essential for the embracing of a society using less resources.

Universal basic income was part of the England and Wales 2015 election manifesto for Westminster, with a fully costed draft proposal for its implementation published during the campaign. After the chaos of universal credit, the party’s proposal was for trials to be conducted for a parliamentary term, with the policy to be implemented in the following term. It continues to be a highly active area of work.

Interest in the policy has grown in the Labour Party, and recently its Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell suggested (although not very enthusiastically) that a pilot could be included in the party’s next general election manifesto. The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, a respected, established, and well-funded institution, has a major project on basic income. In Scotland, a grassroots push led to the government’s announcement of a pilot project, now in the design stages, to be tested in four local authorities.

Greece – Constantine Dimoulas

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

The strict austerity measures imposed in Greece since 2011 by creditors turned the public and political debate almost exclusively on pensions, minimum salaries, and how to safeguard the insurance system. Discussions about the introduction of a universal basic income scheme were set aside by almost all of its previous advocates in favour of means-tested benefits for people in extreme poverty.

In the early 2000s, many centre and radical-left politicians and activists were discussing the prospect of the introduction of a basic income scheme in Greece and the Left Coalition (the parent of SYRIZA) proposed legislation in the parliament. However, it was rejected by the leading parties (New Democracy and PASOK) in Greek politics for ideological and financial reasons.       

There is a nexus of complicated factors against universal basic income in Greece related to cultural (stigmatisation of public assistance, strong familiarism, ideological influence of the Greek Orthodox church, and a widespread popular image of idleness of the recipients of public benefits), political (electoral influence of insured pensioners, leading role of conservative politicians in all political parties), and economic (high rates of tax evasion, financial constraints, and high rates of self-employment) obstacles. However, since 2015 some uncoordinated initiatives have supported universal basic income, mainly run by journalists, researchers, and activists at a local level. Even though in its infancy, the public debate on universal basic income in Greece is increasing nowadays.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country?

Officially, the Green Party in Greece is neither for nor against the legislation of universal basic income. There are many members, especially at a local level, who are interested in the content and the prerequisites for its introduction but the priorities set by the political context concerning ecological issues and public finance do not permeate the party leadership to open an organised discussion inside the party.

After the public debate organised by the Green Institute in Athens on 25 October 2017, the interest in UBI from members at local level increased, although some are not convinced of how it is related to ecology and sustainability. In the next months, a couple of events in local Green organisations on the topic are planned. So far, a proposal for a pilot UBI seems to be welcomed only if it is a categorical UBI scheme, such as for children or recent graduates, and not for the whole population. However, the debate is somewhat premature inside the party and in the public sphere as most activists and politicians are not well informed about universal basic income and are not convinced that it is realistic under the current austerity regime.

Germany – Wolfgang Strengmann-Kuhn

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

There is a lively discussion about basic income in Germany. One reason is the connection with the ongoing debates on digitisation and the future of work. Even some German top managers like Joe Kaeser from Siemens, Timotheus Höttges from Telekom, and others argue for a basic income. In addition, the philosopher Richard David Precht, who is often a guest on TV talk shows, argues for a basic income, with his claim based on the expected changes due to digitisation. Thus, basic income is regularly a topic in the media.

Besides these new players, there were already some prominent supporters for a basic income over the last decade. Thomas Straubhaar, professor of economics and former head of the Hamburg Institute of International Economics, and Götz Werner, a German billionaire and founder of the drugstore chain dm who published new books on basic income, are some publicly known stakeholders. Furthermore, there is an initiative called mein-grundeinkommen.de with significant media response. This organisation gives away basic incomes of 1000 euros per month for a whole year and is financed entirely by crowd funding. The Swiss referendum as well as the basic income experiment in Finland are also drivers of the discussion in Germany.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country?

There has been a controversial debate on basic income within the German Green Party since the 1980s. In 2007, there was an intense debate and finally a party congress, where 42 per cent of the delegates voted for a concrete basic income proposal. However, the adopted resolution declares: “With this resolution the debate on basic income is not finished. The more the discussion goes on in society, the more the discussion shall go on in the party.” In the last election programme in 2017, German Greens declared that many of their proposals, from the basic social security for children to the guaranteed pension, were also influenced by the basic income proposal, and that they wanted to take experiences in other countries into account and to test basic income with a model project. This year, the party started a discussion on a new long-term programme to be adopted in 2020, and the new party chairs emphasised that the discussion on basic income will be a prominent topic. The goal is not to have a show down like in 2007, but to discuss as broadly as possible a Green way to overcome the current system known as “Hartz IV” which was brought about by a controversial reform of welfare benefits and unemployment insurance in 2003.

So far, none of the mainstream political parties is clearly in favour of basic income in Germany.

Finland – Ville Ylikahri

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

There has been a lot of discussion about UBI and other similar models in recent years in Finland. Finland has a strong tradition of universal benefits, like child benefit and basic pension, so the idea of direct money paid by the state to citizens is not so far out as in countries where social security is more insurance based.

The Finnish right-wing government has started a UBI experiment with 2000 unemployed people chosen as a pilot group. They get 560 euros every month no matter what they do. The experiment will come to its end by the end of this year and after that we will wait for the results. The main interest is whether the pilot group has worked more or less than those who have got a normal unemployment benefit.

All the parties in Finland agree that we should renew the Finnish social security system. The discussion around UBI is not so much about the redistribution of wealth; UBI is seen as a smarter way of handing out benefits. The goal is to create a system which is equal for workers and all who work in a non-typical way (i.e. not in a full time, permanent job). The goal is also to make it easy to combine benefits and salaries and in that way encourage people to take short-term job offers.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country? 

The Green Party of Finland have talked about UBI already in the 1980s and the party has had an official UBI model since 2007. UBI has been a significant part of the electoral platforms in many national elections. Without Greens pushing the idea of UBI there would not be a pilot in Finland today.

Other parties have also talked about UBI. The Left Party officially supports it, and the Centre party (the prime minister’s party) is also interested in the idea. Many parties have presented their models of how to renew social security systems in Finland and in those models there are many elements from UBI, but most of the parties are afraid of unconditionality. They think that the state should control people and that giving free money to all is wrong – although there are thousands of people in Finland who have lived with unemployment benefits for years and years. The Greens argue that giving basic income to everyone is the best way to arrange minimum social security. We have to trust people and give people freedom to choose what is best for themselves.

France – Lucile Schmid

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

In France UBI has taken a new importance after the 2017 presidential campaign. Leftist candidate Benoit Hamon supported by former Green candidate Yannick Jadot made a proposal for UBI. It became his symbol for changing the old world and the red and green alliance. In autumn 2017, Green spokesperson Julien Bayou created the NGO Association Mon Revenu de Base financed by crowdfunding. In 2018, this project has seen five people receive 1000 euros per month for one year.

Also in 2018, 13 French departments led by socialist governments decided to put in practice a UBI to fight poverty. The project is led by Gironde in southwest France, with other participating departments including Seine-Saint-Denis near Paris, Nièvre in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Ille-et-Vilaine in Brittany, and several others in the south or east of France. These departments had a shared experience of high unemployment and rising inequalities. The project involves 20 000 people over two years, including young people (from 18 or 21 years old), and requires up to 7 million euros per year. However, putting it into practice depends upon a parliamentary vote which would allow these departments an exemption from French law, which seems difficult to obtain.

Last but not least, Emmanuel Macron used the expression ‘universal income’, announcing in September 2018 his will to create a “revenu universel d’activité”. This proposal was denounced as an attempt to divert the words from their real meaning as Macron strongly advocated for putting people to work, whereas the UBI is in favor of distributing money with no link to employment.  This complex situation shows once more that the expression ‘UBI’ still covers very different and even antagonistic approaches.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country?

The French Greens are in favor of UBI. The main difference between the socialist and the green conceptions of UBI is the emphasis the Socialists put on the fight against poverty as opposed to the Green’s emphasis on the freedom to organise one’s life. The socialist conception also differs from the green one by strongly linking people’s dignity to work and salary. The green approach taken by Julien Bayou’s association puts the emphasis on personal choice and individual stories on a very limited scale, whereas the Socialist-led project emphasises significant scale and asking the government to allow change in national law.

While some Socialists are in favour of UBI, this does not reflect the whole party position. The founder of the left-wing La France Insoumise party, Jean Luc Mélenchon, is against UBI because it would be an argument to stop fighting capitalism. A prominent MP (and internationally known mathematician) in Macron’s party, Cedric Villani, summarised the party position: “UBI does not help people to know why they are proud of what they do or to choose their aims.” Macronians consider disconnecting money and work as morally dangerous and moreover impossible to put into practice on a large scale. On the Left, some prominent academics are opposed to UBI for social reasons, stressing the fact that, in a state like France where social welfare is still at a high level, UBI could be the pretext for a cut in social expenses and denial of any rise in salary. Macron’s claim that social expenses are unable to efficiently fight poverty gives consistency to this argument. The main arguments against UBI lie in the very limited scale of trials and in the difficulty to define its objectives. Is it for social purpose, for simplifying social expenses (and possibly reducing them), or disconnecting work and income? The three arguments are still used alternately by different political actors.

Italy – Giuseppe Allegri

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

Italy is the only European Union country that does not have a minimum income. The first discussions on basic or citizens’ income developed in the feminist, youth, and new Left movements of the 1980s and 1990s as part of the reaction to the crisis of the employment society. In 1997, the book La democrazia del reddito universale (The Democracy of Universal Income) was published and throughout the 1990s and 2000s, precarious movements called for a universal basic income. ‘Reclaim the Money’ and ‘Income for all’ are the slogans of the precariat of cognitive economy.

Universal basic income has drawn interest from people engaged in new forms of precarious, autonomous, and non-permanent work who are potentially affected by prospective universal, yet very selective and exclusionary, welfare reforms. The UBI would represent a public policy break with the Italian model of flexi-insecurity and labour market reform, as pursued over the last 20 years. In 2008, Basic Income Network – Italia (part of the Basic Income Earth Network) was born to advocate for the introduction of a basic income and in 2009 published the book Reddito per tutti. Un’utopia concreta nell’era globale (Income for All: A Concrete Utopia in the Global Era). Over the last ten years, there has been an ongoing civil society debate on basic income, particularly among researchers and social movements active on the future of welfare, future of work, automation and the digital economy, and economic insecurity.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country? 

In the Italian green movements of the 1990s, basic income was seen as a bridge between political ecology and social justice, along the lines set out by André Gorz and Philippe Van Parijs. Since the crisis started in 2007, some centre-left political forces have started to talk about minimum income as a tool to fight poverty. In 2013, 150 civil society organisations put forward a legislative proposal for the introduction of a guaranteed minimum income to the Italian Parliament and, around the same time, some regions such as Lazio, Trentino, and Puglia adopted laws introducing a minimum income. In 2018, the inclusion income, a means-tested payment, came into effect to reduce absolute poverty.

The Five Star Movement digital populist party supports a ‘citizens income’, which is a kind of universal unemployment benefit or minimum income scheme. The Five Star Movement is now part of the government coalition and the discussions on a citizens’ income are continuing, but only for Italian citizens. From a green point of view, a universal basic income could be funded through a carbon tax, implemented as part of a European Green New Deal. Such an initiative would support the social and circular economy and link multiple scales, from cities’ networks to social Europe, to address ecological concerns as well as questions around social innovation, welfare systems, and technological development in the anthropocene/capitalocene era as we move towards a post-capitalist future.

Poland – Adam Ostolski

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

The idea of a universal basic income has been around for some time now, but it can hardly be considered part of the political debate in a strict sense. However, ongoing debates about a citizen’s retirement or a universal child allowance can provide us with some insights into how a UBI would be received.

The idea of citizens’ retirement (i.e. an equal sum of money to which every citizen would be entitled after reaching certain age) has been gaining popularity since a series of ill-received reforms of the retirement system under Donald Tusk reinforced the perception that the current system is broken. The idea is supported both by market liberals and many left-wingers. However, the liberals expect the retirement to be very low and supplemented with private retirement funds, while the Left wants it to be sufficient to provide for a decent life.

The quasi-universal child allowance was introduced by the Law and Justice government in 2016. It is a monthly payment of 500 zlotys (ca. 100 euros) for the second and every next child in all families and for all children in the poorest ones. The criticism of the programme on the part of the mainstream opposition revealed both resistance to cash payments and strong attachment to means testing, perceived as a fairer solution even by many self-declared social democrats. Liberals would also introduce conditionality, requiring participation of at least one of the parents in the labour market. It seems that everything that is contrary to the principles underlying UBI is well entrenched in Poland’s political culture.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country?

Following a decade-long internal debate, the Green Party in Poland included universal basic income in the manifesto it adopted in February 2016: “We support the adoption of a guaranteed basic income that will enable satisfaction of basic needs, provide the sense of security and empower employees dealing with employers.” Nowadays, Greens are the only party of national scope which officially advocates for the idea of a UBI, though individual supporters may be found also in other parties and political milieus. Historically, UBI was first put forward by the populist Polish Self-Defence party in the mid-2000s. It is also worth noting that Greens, alongside the Razem party, do support both citizens’ retirement and universal child allowance, which may be treated as milestones on the way to a full UBI.

The discussion about UBI is fostered mostly by left-wing intellectual circles like, amongst others, the Polish Basic Income Network, a transpartisan association of scholars and activists founded in 2016, the Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), the Nowy Obywatel (New Citizen) or the Praktyka Teoretyczna (Theoretical Practice), a scientific journal which published a whole issue devoted to the discussion of UBI versus the job guarantee.

The main obstacle in discussing UBI is that the debate remains both abstract and constricted to the left corner. Major political parties never talk about UBI. Pilots, be it on the local or national level, are not being either proposed or considered by political actors.

Portugal – Jorge Pinto

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

The universal basic income is only scarcely present in the public debate in Portugal. After a peak that followed the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) Congress organised in Lisbon in September 2017, the debate has remained mostly in the academic sphere. There have been some opinion articles in the media (mostly defending an economic liberal model of UBI) and different political parties have organised panels or debates on the UBI topic but, in particular comparing with other countries, it cannot be said that the debate has reached the majority of the population.

At the end of the 1990s, Portugal tried a social programme close to a UBI, although targeting only the poorer share of the population. The debate on UBI is thus mostly around the future of the welfare system and who it should target, although discussions relating to the future of work and fighting poverty are part of the picture as well.

In 2017, the Portuguese UBI Association was created and it is expected that more public debate will arise in the near future.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country? 

There are three parties in Portugal that can be considered close to the Greens. The Ecologist Party (PEV) has no position on UBI. The left-green-libertarian party LIVRE was created in 2014 and has presented UBI in its electoral programmes ever since – in January 2018, a motion defending UBI was approved in the party’s Congress. PAN, the nature and animal party, also supports a UBI in its programme. Regarding green movements and organisations, there is no public position regarding UBI, although some green activists support the idea.

The parliamentary Left, however, is quite sceptical of the idea of a UBI. There may be different reasons for that, and chief among them is the historical evolution of the Portuguese social security system which emerged from the Carnation revolution in 1974 and of which the Portuguese people remain very proud. Thus, unsurprisingly, most of the Portuguese Left looks suspiciously on UBI, considering it a possible way of reducing the current social security system.

Pilot projects were proposed by PAN (at the city level) and LIVRE (in the Azores archipelago) and an academic project and conference regarding pilot projects is planned for the year 2019.

Scotland – Jamie Cooke

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

Basic income has rapidly moved from a fringe concept to a core policy discussion in Scotland in the space of about two years. This has primarily been led by civic society (including organisations like my own, the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and grassroots groups such as Citizens’ Basic Income Network Scotland) and local authorities. Growing out of work undertaken by the Fairer Fife Commission, which recommended piloting basic income in a town in Fife, an area to the north of Edinburgh, we have created a substantial amount of debate and policy momentum, culminating in September 2017 with the commitment by the Scottish Government in their Programme for Government agenda to support feasibility work into the potential for pilots in four areas of Scotland. This work has now started, with broad support from many actors.

The driving force of this change seems to primarily have come from a perspective of social justice – how can we create a fairer Scotland, one which moves on from the broken socioeconomic paradigm that we currently operate in?  This is particularly relevant for a city like Glasgow (one of the proposed test sites) which has a legacy of population challenges (health, unemployment, insecurity) existing alongside some vibrant growth and development.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country?

The Scottish Green Party has been the longest standing political supporter of basic income in Scotland, and remain involved in and contributing to the development of the policy here. They bring strong commitment to the fairness and social agenda which has been pushing the idea forward, and it sits nicely with their wider policy positions. What has been crucial in Scotland, however, has been making sure that basic income is not seen as ‘belonging’ to a political party or position. We have had broad support for the work being developed from across the political spectrum – even from the Tories, as whilst the Scottish Conservatives have become strongly opposed on a national level, local settings have seen different forms of support and interest. Success moving forward will, and should, rely upon a coalition of political supporters, and it has been particularly encouraging to have been involved in the recent launch of a Cross Party Group on Basic Income at the Scottish Parliament, with members from the governing Scottish National Party, the Scottish Labour Party, and the Scottish Green Party.

Spain – Julen Bollain

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

Nowadays, basic income as such cannot be considered at the core of the public debate in Spain. Nevertheless, there is a growing interest in basic income throughout the country since 2014 and several articles on the topic can be found almost every day in Spanish newspapers.

Even though basic income is difficult to find on the national political agenda, it can be found on a regional level. The qualitative boost that different basic income pilot projects have given to the measure makes the basic income debate advance remarkably fast.

Some political actors that may support basic income consider that it could be a double-edged sword; if they show support for it, the Spanish mass media could easily rip into them and undermine their results.

Supporters of some left-wing progressive political parties are trying to bring basic income into the national public debate and advocate clearly for a basic income. Notwithstanding, political leadership has not yet taken that step. Even if we are on the right track, some political will is lacking.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country? 

In September 2010, EQUO was founded as a result of the merge of 35 Spanish Green parties. In its second assembly, EQUO considered the recognition of the individual right to a sum of money that guarantees people’s material existence without them having to depend on someone else or on charity to live. Since then, EQUO has taken the stance that a basic income for all is essential to build human rights and have sustainable development, as it helps to eradicate poverty and to reduce inequalities.

EQUO considers prioritising the fight against poverty and social exclusion extremely urgent, and since 2014 has demanded the launch of a European debate on basic income alongside a debate on maximum income.

Even though EQUO has a strong commitment to basic income, the Greens got together with Podemos and Izquierda Unida in the last national elections in 2016 to form the left-wing electoral alliance Unidos Podemos. While Izquierda Unida backs a job guarantee programme, Podemos supported basic income in the 2014 European elections and, unfortunately, a guaranteed minimum income afterwards. In the end, Unidos Podemos advocated for a means-tested guaranteed minimum income in the 2016 national elections, rather than for a basic income.

Switzerland – Irina Studhalter

Is universal basic income a part of the public and political debate in your country?

Basic income was very much a part of the public and political debate in Switzerland, but only at the time of the referendum in 2016 which included a question about implementing a universal basic income. Switzerland, compared to Germany or the US, was very late in discovering the political idea of basic income, and it was the referendum that accelerated the debate. The most discussed question in the Swiss context must be automation and the future of work. Some are also arguing for a simpler welfare system thanks to the basic income debate, but this is a rather shy discussion since liberals do not argue in favour of basic income and the Left is afraid of cuts to the welfare system.

A recent private initiative is giving basic income a new push in Switzerland. Filmmaker Rebecca Panian and a small team of volunteers are working on a one year trial in a small Swiss village called Rheinau. The trial is optional to the villagers, financed privately and planned to start in 2019.

What is the position of the Green party, other parties, and social movements in the UBI debate in your country?

The Swiss Green Party was the only party taking a stand for basic income during the referendum in 2016. Every other political party suggested a ‘no’ at the ballot box. Inside the Green Party, the discussion was controversial. The party leadership, including the members of the national parliament, was mostly opposed because they saw the welfare system endangered. However, the party base spoke out clearly in favour of basic income at the referendum. After the vote, the Green Party as well as the whole political debate kept quiet about basic income.

There are other political and public actors in Switzerland that push the idea of basic income. The activists are fragmented and in loose contact. The most known initiative at the moment is the village of Rheinau that will hopefully start a trial in 2019. Other actors such as ‘Dein Grundeinkommen’ are working on a civic, voluntary basic income system, not including the state.

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