CECOP had the chance to sit down with its member Smart and discuss the ongoing Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Readers note: European readers, TV viewers, citizens, in general, are regularly confronted with terms like the Austrian presidency or the Finnish Presidency of the EU. Newspapers and news broadcasters are often caught in the rush of breaking news to properly make these EU notions accessible to all. Fear not! We are here to help you navigate these institutional waters and then we will lead you to the country that is currently holding the Presidency.   

The European Institution, which represents the interests of all 28 Member States, is the Council of the European Union. Together with the European Parliament (which represents the interest of European citizens), the Council legislates and decides on new directives and regulations (the European laws). The Council’s political priorities and calendars are set by one Member State at a time for 6 months each: this is the famous rotation Presidency of the European Council.   

At CECOP, we have proposed to our readers a focus on our national members when their country is holding the rotation Presidency of the European Council. Until the 1st of July 2024, the Presidency of the European Council is ensured by Belgium.  

Interview with Anne-Laure Desgris (ALD), Co-CEO of the cooperative Smart Belgium, and Board member of CECOP.

CECOP (C): Congratulations to Smart on its 25th anniversary. What do you see as the cooperative's main achievements since its creation?

Anne-Laure Desgris (ALD): The first major achievement was, of course, the creation of Smart in 1998 in response to the need of the workers in the artistic and cultural sector to develop their professional activities in a secure environment. Nearly twenty years later, the transformation of Smart from not-for-profit organisation into a cooperative bringing together thousands of members from very different sectors and with very different profiles was another major milestone in Smart's history.

The most important achievements are to be found in the ongoing work being done to meet the needs of members: individual and collective support, administrative support through the sharing of management tools, the setting up of common meeting and collaboration areas, the organisation of experience sharing, a range of low-cost training courses, etc. A whole range of things is made possible by the pooling effect. The cooperative also helps to break the isolation experienced by many freelancers.

C: The world of work has changed profoundly since then, driven by factors such as teleworking, the importance of soft skills, AI and automation, the gig , and a focus on employee wellbeing. How is Smart positioning itself in this context, and what are its priorities for the future?

ALD: The starting point for our work is to meet the needs of our members. So Smart is fully anchored in the present, even the immediate, and new developments in the world of work are rapidly reflected in requests, documents, and practices. The common needs of thousands of different professions define the priorities of the services made available to members.

Smart has always integrated and defended the best possible working conditions and consistency with the challenges of a sensible future. The cooperative is committed to the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Sometimes Smart precedes legislation in adapting to changes.

We are also at the intersection of two needs: on one hand, constant digital progress, because the Belgian population has a real dexterity with screens and management tools, and, on the other hand, the preservation of human ties and encounters in our spaces and offices. Because the raison d'être of the cooperative is to meet people, to make contact.

Therefore, in addition to meeting the direct needs of our members, we will continue to promote the model of collective and cooperative entrepreneurship. We are convinced that our society and the business world in general need to remember the importance of human beings and their environment. We cannot work in a world without life and social ties. We want to be based on common principles, short circuits, local production and, of course, adequate remuneration of labour... which we consider much more important than the remuneration of capital.

C: Belgium took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU at the beginning of 2024 and will hold it until the end of June. For Smart, what are the most pressing issues that the Belgian Presidency should tackle during its term?

ALD: We hope that this Presidency will maximise the visibility of social entrepreneurship in all its forms.  Old-style capitalism crashes against its own limits, and - blinded by multinational corporations' shareholder profits or frenzied commerce - undermines prosperity in general without concern for people, working conditions or the environment. What Smart is doing, opening alternatives for entrepreneurial development that take a long-term view and favour respect for people, is more than an imperative: it's an emergency.

This also represents  an opportunity to bring together all the parties and networks involved in the social economy so that we can finally start talking together about a useful transformation of society. The Council of the European Union has the power to do this, but we need to put it into practice and show a real willingness to go beyond words.

C: In June 2024, European citizens will be called upon to vote in the European elections. What do you expect from the next European Commission and Parliament?

ALD: We are waiting for their words to be reinforced and translated into action: for the Commission to continue its initiatives to promote the social economy and fair development. When will there be real recognition of cooperative initiatives like ours? Because Smart is not isolated, other initiatives are being created in Europe and they work! Together we are supporting people who are developing business projects, building teams, and creating jobs and wealth, but we are constantly coming up against obstacles that complicate the lives of those who want to work in cooperatives.

It is imperative that we define an operational framework for the activities of people who work and have chosen to work in a shared enterprise. National and European authorities must also set an example by introducing non-financial criteria in public tenders that allow social and fair enterprises to prove their worth and win certain contracts. Price is no longer the only variable to be taken into account.

C: Anne-Laure, you are also Vice-President of CECOP. From a European perspective, what are the main challenges that cooperatives among self-employed will have to face in the 2024 European elections to make their voice heard?

ALD: In Belgium, self-employed is the name reserved for a specific tax status. But if we're talking about cooperatives that employ professionals who develop their economic activities autonomously under employment contracts and employee status, as Smart does, then I think we must unite and fight even harder than before for the shared enterprise model to be recognised as essential to achieving a fairer transition, a more balanced society.

We have proof of this every day, but the public authorities are still hesitating, which is incomprehensible. Our cooperatives have enormous potential, and we are only at the beginning of their growth. Their activities are often developed in a more local spirit, with a network of customers. Cooperatives are therefore a referent point for the development of short distribution channels, and the time has come to defend this idea by joining forces. For the time being, we will be forging closer relations with other Belgian and international cooperatives to ensure that this debate can take place.

C: Finally, Smart has been a member of CECOP since 2017, how do you see your collaboration with CECOP and what are your expectations for the future?

ALD: The CECOP network is very important to us because it allows us to meet people and organisations working with similar values, similar hopes, and common actions. It is encouraging and reassuring for our fundamental choices. By joining forces, we strengthen our voice and, thanks to the expertise of the team and its board, we maintain our presence within the European institutions and continue to make our voices heard. As a member of CECOP, we hope to multiply and intensify our interventions, to take them as high as possible to obtain decisions or even laws, and on the other hand to increase interactions between cooperatives and collaborations, always reinforcing confidence. Smart is ready to commit even more in this direction.

Thank you, Anne-Laure!