The COVID-19 crisis appears to have increased public support for radical economic solutions in Europe. A survey published by the Europe’s Stories research team at the University of Oxford, revealed that 71% of those interviewed support a universal basic income.

Cherwell spoke to Timothy Garton Ash, leader of the research group and Professor of European Studies and Leader of the “Europe Studies” research group at Oxford on what his findings could mean for the future after COVID-19, how we can combat economic uncertainty among young people, and whether the “Baby Boomer” generation might be more supportive of student activism than we think. 

Do you think this level of support [71%] for a universal basic income has to do with heightened uncertainty during a pandemic or is it a policy Europeans have always supported?

The figure is remarkable. I think support was already growing because of a sense of inequality following the financial crisis and a sense of growing economic insecurity. This was then massively catalysed by the pandemic, partially of course because quite a few governments are already expanding their social security nets during the lockdown.

Does public support for policies like the universal basic income in the UK match the European response?

Yes, in this polling that we did, Britain is not an outlier. One of the things we discovered, ironically enough, is that just after Britain has left the EU, we see just how European the country is. The celebration of the NHS and the social care system in this country has been enormous – and what could be more European than a national health service and a strong welfare state?

Why do you believe has public support for a universal basic income not been matched by a policy response in Europe?

A universal basic income is certainly a radical proposal and has to be thought through quite carefully. A UBI is part of a cluster of concepts for a more equitable society: even Milton Friedman, a neoliberal economist, has proposed a negative income tax – people below a certain income receive money from the state instead of paying taxes. A form that I find really interesting, especially for students entering the economy is what I call universal minimum inheritance: to level up the inequality between those who have rich parents and those who don’t, everyone would get a public inheritance at the age of 25.

That sounds like a really interesting policy. Could you tell me a bit more about it?

The most radical version of it was proposed by Thomas Piketty in his new book. He proposes a pretty generous public inheritance: roughly 120,000 Euros when you turn 25. The question is obviously how that would get paid for… More realistic, I think, as a starting point, is a level of £10,000, as proposed by the Institute of Public Policy Research in London. They set up a “Commission for Economic Justice” with a wide range of people on it, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. I think if you started with a negative income tax and a modest minimum inheritance, that’s already a lot better than what we have at the moment. 

How likely is it that progressive economic policies like the UBI are going to come out of the ongoing crisis in the UK?

Like all big historical moments, this one is creating very positive possibilities for us, but also very negative ones. Given the current impact of the pandemic, we could quite possibly come out of this with a much more unequal society, more nationalism and higher competition. The people who are being hit the hardest are those in low-skilled jobs and those with lower savings. The positive possibility across liberal democracies is that, with this coming on top of the financial crisis and the Eurocrisis, people finally start demanding action against inequality and insecurity for young people and poorer members of our society. The response to this in Britain could be connected to the levelling up agenda of the Johnson government, both geographically and socially – but that’s the optimistic version. 

Your study also finds that 58% of Europeans would like their countries to reduce carbon emissions to no excess emissions by 2030. Many students like myself feel a lack of support from the Boomer generation, but your findings vary little by age group. If it exists, why has support for climate action by the older generations been so quiet?

This is an interesting finding from the survey. We find much more variation when we ask questions like “Would you support a ban on non-essential flying?” or “Would you ban all petrol and diesel vehicles?”. Everyone tends to support the thing that doesn’t affect them, or affects them less: young people are more likely to support giving up petrol and diesel vehicles because they’re less likely to have one. Older generations want to keep their vehicles but would give up the flying. But beyond that: climate change is the issue of your generation and it’s definitely rather encouraging to see a degree of support from older Europeans for a really ambitious target. 

Climate action can’t be achieved without government action. 53% of young Europeans place more confidence in authoritarian regimes than democracies when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. Are young people disappointed by their representatives, and if so, why?

That’s such a staggering finding. With our team, we’ve been trying to dig deeper into that. As far as I can see, what it reflects is not admiration for authoritarian regimes but disillusionment with the way democracy is working. Young people believe that democracies are so slow-moving, so vulnerable to special-interest groups, corporations and the financial-services sector that they’re simply incapable of taking the radical action needed in time.

Is that a view you would personally agree with?

No, I don’t. Emphatically not. I think in authoritarian regimes, you end up neither with an effective answer to climate change nor with freedom. It’s a mistake that people have made again and again throughout history to think that if you give up the one you get more of the other. To give you one example: China, although it tells a good story about alternative energy, is one of the biggest sources of increasing carbon emissions without any effective control by public opinion. In a democracy, you and your generation can mobilise and democratic governments will respond – the European Commission has now made it the flagship policy of this period. 

Your team has developed a self-interviewing facility where people can record a ten-minute interview reflecting on their own crucial European moments and hopes for Europe in 2030. What results have you been able to gather from this so far?

(Link: https://europeanmoments.com/your-story)

First of all, I’d love to encourage all of your readers to take part in this. What is absolutely clear so far is that climate change and the complex issues around jobs and social security are on top of the list. The challenge for national governments and Europe as a whole is: can they deliver? And: how do we get from here to there? I fundamentally believe that it depends on you, your colleagues and other active citizens. Governments do ultimately respond to shifts in voters’ views. In democratic politics, you can shift ideas from the margins to the centre quite quickly – our findings on the UBI, which five years ago was seen as an eccentric and wildly utopian idea, show just that.

Professor Garton Ash, thank you for the interview and your time.