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Social cooperatives at the high level debate during the European Commission conference on social enterprises

20/01/2014

Social cooperatives at the high level debate during the European Commission conference on social enterprises

The two day event “Social Entrepreneurs have your say” organized by the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has been held in Strasbourg (France) on 16 and 17 January. European policy makers, as well as representatives from Member States have agreed on the crucial role of cooperatives in the current situation. The president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, declared that there has been no other sector “as resilient as cooperatives during the crisis in Europe”. Antonio Tajani, Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship said in front of more than 2,000 participants, that “social cooperatives, by nature, are an innovative model. They ‘self-innovate’ all the time".

Invited by the Commissioner Tajani to join the discussion during the plenary session, Giuseppe Guerini, President of the Italian organisation of social cooperatives Federsolidarietà-Confcooperative, discussed the financial solvency of cooperatives saying that the credit default rate of Italian cooperatives “is irrelevant, and therefore their trustworthiness is very high: it’s the world of finance that needs us and our trustworthiness, not the other way round”. The Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Laszlo Andor, declared “recession lasted much longer than what was acceptable and we were convinced from the start that the social economy and social enterprises were part of the solution”.

Marguerite Mendell, Director of the Karl Polanyi Institute of Political Economy and Graduate Program Director of the School of Community and Public Affairs at the Concordia University, Canada offered an international vision at the opening speech. She emphasized the strong development of legislation in the field of social enterprises: beyond the many European countries, specific legislation in this field exists, in particular in the USA and some Canadian provinces as well as Korea, she said. She also underlined that the 1991 Italian law on social cooperatives had a pioneering role and influenced many other countries. She also mentioned the Cleveland worker cooperatives in the USA who work on social integration of disadvantaged people as a model, now being disseminated to other USA cities.

The French Minister of Social and Solidarity Economy, Benoît Hamon underlined the fact that the social and solidarity economy is embedded in the communities: “in France while most companies listed on the stock exchange have their headquarters in Paris, most cooperatives have theirs in the regions. In this way they contribute to develop the local economy”. Hamon also declared that there has been “the crisis of a business model in which the remuneration of capital is far too high. It is necessary today that, alongside conventional companies, we have entrepreneurial biodiversity with companies of persons, not of capitals. I am thus happy that, within social entrepreneurship, the EU is considering not only the social objective, but also the businesses that have a democratic type of governance”.

Euro MP Patrizia Toia, author of the European Parliament 2013 Report on the contribution of cooperatives to overcome the crisis, said “we must clarify that social enterprises have a specific regime of distribution of profits, and this should not be confused with corporate social responsibility”. Italian Labour Minister Enrico Giovannini emphasized that, in order to be a force of renewal, social enterprises had to be able to identify new needs and to be innovative in responding to them. In the various debates and feedback from the floor in plenary, the role of social enterprises in creating new jobs, especially for young people, was repeatedly underlined, even though the job issue, in itself, was not on the agenda of the conference, (except jobs specifically for the disadvantaged).

Another issue which came out without being on the agenda was growth, and how to measure it, and how to move beyond GDP. Italian Minister Giovannini underlined the topic, which was echoed by several participants from the floor.

Commissioner Tajani hailed the European Parliament vote on the Public Procurement Directive, which took place on the day before (15 January), and its article 17 on reserved markets for disadvantaged persons. CECOP – CICOPA Europe had been lobbying the European Union institutions since 2006 on the formulation of this article, which is due to have a substantial impact on social enterprises in general and social cooperatives in particular. Click here for more news on this.

Around 2,000 people have participated in this two-day event, including members of social cooperatives and other forms of social entreprises, academics, policy makers, financial service providers, social activists and many more. CECOP – CICOPA Europe was also present at a stand at the conference centre. Bruno Roelants, Secretary General of CECOP – CICOPA Europe, contributed as a moderator in the workshop “Legal aspects of social enterprises: Regulatory framework, European forms, corporate governance”, where many panelists underlined the need to define criteria about the functioning of social enterprises, particularly from the point of view of governance and the distribution of profits. Felice Scalvini, councilor for social policies of Brescia municipality and ex president of CECOP – CICOPA Europe, said that “political democracy is at the root of the European social model which is a model of social inclusion; likewise, economic democracy will in itself produce social inclusion”. Other workshops addressed questions such as social enterprises and green economy or private financing for social enterprises.

The conference wounded up with the “Strasbourg Declaration” which spells out the need for a legal framework, training and financing, among other items, and which is available here.

According to the European Commission, the social economy is an important pillar of the European economy, representing some 10% of GDP. More than 11 million workers or 4.5% of the active EU population are employed in the social economy. One in every four new businesses set up is part of that typology, rising to one in three in France, Finland and Belgium.

The Social Business Initiative, spearheaded by Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier, includes a definition of social enterprise which is close to the common denominator found in a CECOP – CICOPA Europe study (Cooperatives and Social Enterprises – Governance and Normative Framework, 2009) among social enterprise or social cooperative laws in 11 EU countries, and which, among other elements, emphasizes the need for democratic governance in such enterprises.

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