A better world can emerge after coronavirus. Or a much worse one

Timothy Garton Ash

Most Europeans support a universal basic income, yet young people doubt democracy’s capacity to deliver change

Wed 6 May 2020


The coronavirus crisis seems to be encouraging belief in radical change. An astonishing 71% of Europeans are now in favour of introducing a universal basic income, according to an opinion poll designed by my research team at Oxford university and published today. In Britain, the figure is 68%. Less encouraging, at least to anyone who believes in liberal democracy, is another startling finding in the survey: no less than 53% of young Europeans place more confidence in authoritarian states than in democracies to tackle the climate crisis. The poll was conducted by eupinions in March, as most of Europe was locking down against the virus, but the questions had been formulated earlier. It would be fascinating now to ask Europeans which political system they think has proved better at combating a pandemic, as the United States and China, the world’s leading democracy and the world’s leading dictatorship, spray viral accusations at each other.

Those two contrasting but equally striking survey results show how high the stakes will be as we emerge from the immediate medical emergency, and face the subsequent economic pandemic and its political fallout. What kind of historical moment will this turn out to be, for Europe and the world? It could lead us to the best of times. It could lead us to the worst of times.

The proposal for a universal basic income was until recently often dismissed as far-out and utopian. But during the anti-pandemic lockdowns, many developed countries have introduced something close to it. Spain’s economy minister has said that its “minimum vital income” could become a permanent instrument in the country’s system. Hardly a day passes now when I do not read another article suggesting that universal basic income, or some variant of it, is an idea whose time has come.

This would be one ingredient of a possible future in which we managed to turn one of the greatest crises of the postwar world into one of its greatest opportunities. We can address the soaring inequality, both economic and cultural, which has been eroding the foundations even of established liberal democracies like Britain and the US. Having learned to work in different ways, more from home and with less unnecessary travel, we turn this into a new life-work model.

After turning out on our balconies and rooftops, all across Europe, to applaud the doctors, nurses, social care and other essential workers, we do not forget them once the medical danger has passed. Not only do they get a better deal socially and economically – the postwar slogan “homes fit for heroes” comes to mind – but there is also what Polish populists slyly call a “redistribution of respect”. And in making that necessary redistribution, we also deprive the nationalist populists of their electoral appeal.

At the same time, we recognise that a planet stalked by genuinely global threats, such as this virus and climate change, requires more international cooperation, not less. And the EU, which earlier this week convened an international meeting to raise funds for fighting Covid-19, becomes a prime mover of global collective action.

That’s the dream. But then there’s the nightmare.  …

People entering an unemployment office in Madrid (Keystone)

1 reply

  1. optimist? pessimist? realist? – Unfortunately I do not expect a much ‘better’ world after all this. Yes, any disaster brings out the best in some people, but also the worst in others. Who will win out?

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