After a press conference of the German government on March 13th, 2020, the Berlin entrepreneur Tonia Merz opened her laptop. Within the next few weeks she will have become the best-known face of the German UBI scene. She realizes, that the measures against COVID-19 will put the majority of the people in existential distress. Therefore she spontaniuosly started an online petition calling for a 6-month crisis basic income. Almost 500,000 people agree with her and sign the petition on change.org.
In an interview with UBI4ALL, the shooting star of UBI activists explains how it all happened and what she was able to achieve with her action.
What is it about the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income, that convinces you the most?
Tonia: It's the individual freedom that everyone would get for their lives. I myself live a free life as an entrepreneur and only realized last year that I had also been living on a quasi-basic-income for a while. I started a business with my mother's inheritance and had 1,000 euros paid out to me for 30 months. So that was already a basic income. I am very sure that the UBI will also be interesting for business, because many people would do something very productive with it.
But entrepreneurship is only one aspect in the whole thing. There is so much more! For example, many women would have their children that they don't have now if they get pregnant unexpectedly. There are so many advantages. I think there is something different for every person.
For me, individual freedom, security and the possibility to shape one's own life are central.
Which questions about basic income remain unanswered, on which points do you have doubts about whether it will work?
Tonia: I have to say that until my petition I was "just" a basic income sympathizer. I wasn't an activist and I wasn't that deeply involved in the issue, but I always liked the idea. In the last six months, I have become more informed and of course there are details that need to be considered, such as how it can be financed. I also would not agree that people, who have paid into their pensions all their lives, now suddenly should get less or they should no longer get pension payments at all. Or the question: who is considered as being “German” and who is entitled to get it? One will certainly have to ask some unpleasant questions.
How did your petition come about? Was there a key moment that triggered it?
Tonia: Just recently someone said to me, "Tonia had a baby overnight." That's about how it was. On March 13th, when Scholz [Olaf; German Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister] and Altmaier [Peter; Germany’s Federal Minister for Economy and Energy] held their press conference, I realized quickly what kind of tsunami-wave would be sweaping over us. However, I didn't realize the full dimension at that time. On the basis of the figures mentioned, it was clear that we can’t yet fully understand what this will mean. I thought about all of my friends who would be affected by the measures against COVID-19 and had the feeling, that something must be done quickly. And then I had the spontaneous idea: we need a safe crisis income NOW for everybody. Three hours later I had started the petition, just off the cuff, without thinking much about it.
So, I was primarily concentrated on a crisis income, because I knew that the “checks of need” will become one of the biggest challenges. As an entrepreneur, I knew that the economy was going to collapse. It would be the best economic stimulus ever if people, who don't necessarily need it, also get it. After the past 10 months, I am convinced that such a crisis income would have been by far easier than the patchwork that has happened now; where Lufthansa and TUI got the big amounts and the common people are still waiting for support.
I myself are struggling a lot with these bridging applications 1, 2, 3, .... It is really unbelievable! Politicians tell us all the time that there is help everywhere, but it is really difficult. Many simply don't apply for aid because they have the feeling that they already have one foot in jail because of subsidy fraud, especially since the conditions are constantly being changed in the background.
Had you ever started a petition before? Did you know how it works?
Tonia: No, never, it came spontaneously. Change.org was the only platform I knew an where I had also signed petitions myself. I didn't know at all what was the normal procedure, and I also didn't know that politics doesn't have to deal with such a petition.
Almost 500,000 people have signed the petition you started online. Isn’t such a number significant, even if politicians don't have to formally take notice of it?
Tonia: Well, I am quite angry that Hubertus Heil [German Federal Minister of Labor and Social Affairs] has in no way deigned to respond to my emails to him. I know from the press office that my messages were indeed on his desk and being processed. Politicians just don't want to deal with the issue.
I was also thinking, "Hey, I have half a million signatures and you guys aren't even sending people a signal that they are being seen?" That really pisses me off!
Can you explain why these 500,000 signatures were obtained so quickly? Susanne Wiest started a parliamentary petition and had about 176,000 signatures in October when she took it to the petitions committee of the German Bundestag.
Tonia: One explanation is certainly that these "open petitions", like change.org, are simply easier for many people to access. They are easier to share on social media, so they go viral much faster. The Bundestag [German Parliament] makes it much more complicated to sign, with registration and so on.
And then I just had the right thought at the right time. I obviously had hit the bull's eye when people were just very scared. My petition text had a broad setup. I included quite a lot of people, from students to pensioners, entrepreneurs, and so on. Many other petitions have specialized in groups, such as artists for example. I quickly realized that there will be more people in this country who will be affected, than those who will not be affected by the crisis. I think my petition was very inclusive and a lot of people felt seen.
Did you also start parallel campaigns, ask well-known people for support? Did you have an accompanying strategy or did you just wait and see what would happen?
Tonia: I just clicked "go" and the thing went pretty quickly on its own. However, I am also a very good networker. Susanne Wiest started her petition, which was almost identical in content, one day after mine and when it was online, I immediately contacted Susanne: "Hi Susanne, I'm the other one." I did the same with David Erler, who had the big petition for cultural workers. In his he had even referred to mine. So, we were all in the same boat relatively quickly and worked closely together. I don't think that this is so often the case when it comes to things like that.
Of course, Mein Grundeinkommen was also involved almost from the beginning. The whole UBI-scene was pleased that a greenhorn like me suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I could not be accused of trying to push through old interests taking advantage of Corona. As an entrepreneur, I was also credible because I said that this was related to the crisis situation and still had the basic income scene behind me.
What happens now after the successful petition? What has it achieved? Where do you want to pick up now and continue working on the issue?
Tonia: In the last few months it was difficult for me to do anything else, because I also had to take care of saving my company. I've been doing all this alongside my actual business and the last year has been quite exhausting.
But what it has definitely affected is that basic income has suddenly become such a huge topic. With good reason I can claim that my petition and all its signatories have contributed significantly to the fact that the German Greens included basic income in their party program. I really thought: "Chaka!". That was really an enormous step!
Even if politics still pretends not to see us, I do believe that the petition had and still has an impact. The European Petition for UBI came up also due to the fact that in several European countries the whole issue of basic income has received such a boost during the crisis. Above all, because now even people who primarily stated: "Why would we need this?" have realized, that we can get thrown into an emergency situation so unexpectedly and without no blame at all. A basic income would give us more serenity, to the individual and to the whole country. We could all stay at home much more relaxed, for example.
Why did you limit your demand for an unconditional basic income to six months instead of permanently and thus unconditional and universal, as is the basic idea of a UBI?
Tonia: On the one hand, because my action was actually triggered by the crisis and limited to this specific COVID-19 situation. On the other hand, because the situation at the beginning of the crisis would not have been suitable to make such a far-reaching decision. We have to wait and see what our world will look like after the crisis, when things return to normal. That's why it was clear to me that this can only be done for a limited period of time, for the duration of the crisis. But at the same time, of course, the door is then wide open for it to be continued afterwards. I think it would also have been the first big test for UBI, which is still missing. Like I wrote in my petition text: There is no better opportunity!
When do you think a real basic income will be introduced somewhere and in which country could it happen first?
Tonia: Good question! Let's see how our elections will go next year, who will win them. (laughs)
There are only two options: one of the very poor European countries or one of the very rich. The very rich because they can afford it and the very poor because they need it most and there is a great demand among the population.
Will you continue to engage yourself for basic income after the crisis is over or will you withdraw yourself from the scene?
Tonia: Actually, I should do that, staying active. I should use the momentum and audience I have achieved for the idea. The longer I think about it and the more I deal with the issue of UBI, the more convinced I am of course!
So, yes, as soon as I have more time again, I will get more involved. Maybe not to the extent that I have been in the past year.
Your example shows that you can also achieve a lot as an individual. Complaining alone will not get us anywhere. What advice do you have for people who feel paralyzed and powerless by the COVID-19 situation?
Tonia: I’d say: just do it! (laughs)
There are two kinds of people’s reactions in crisis situations. There are the ones who immediately chance into action mode – obviously I am one of them – who immediately fight the insecurity by doing something. The others keep their head down or fall into a state of rabbit shock.
All I can tell the people is: "Try it! Try it on a small scale and you'll see, you'll make a difference."
We are thrilled that you will continue to be with us as a UBI activist, Tonia! Thank you for this interview and your sparkling energy!
Good luck with your own business www.tomto.de – we wish you to get through the crisis well and strengthened!
Not only the petition of Tonia Merz can still be signed, but also the European Citizens' Initiative – the official EU petition for an UBI – needs your signature.
Article by: Roswitha Minardi