It was a privilege to be a part of the UK delegation to the Cooperatives Europe General Assembly in Brussels on 20 April. It is always stimulating to be among so many dynamic and successful co-operators from across our continent.
The European co-operative movement is a force to be reckoned with – as demonstrated in a new report launched at the Assembly. The Power of Cooperation – Cooperatives Europe Key Figures 2015, is the first Europe-wide report containing key co-operative information on the federation’s members, with contributions from Co-operatives UK.
Based on an 18-month research project, the report shows that across Europe there are nearly 180,000 co-operative enterprises with more than €1,000bn of turnover and more than 140 million memberships, employing some 4.7 million people. In the EU, one in every five people is a member of a co-operative.
The Assembly was an opportunity both to look forwards and to reflect on ten years of Cooperatives Europe. To mark this anniversary, special medals were presented to the founding chairs – the UK’s Dame Pauline Green and the distinguished French co-operator Étienne Pflimlin of Crédit Mutuel.
After opening addresses from the president of Cooperatives Europe Dirk Lehnhoff and ICA president Monique Leroux, there was a very moving session on member responses to the refugee challenge. Introduced by Co-operatives UK secretary general Ed Mayo, there were contributions from Sweden, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Israel.
The scale of this crisis is daunting yet the generous and compassionate response from co-operators was humbling for a representative from the UK – a country which is not sure if it even wants to be in Europe! Responses offered some uniquely co-operative ways to turn what could be a problem into an opportunity by using the skills that such a large and diverse influx of people bring with them.
The first session of the afternoon returned us to the more formal work with reflections on ‘10 years ago and where are we now’.
The wide-ranging discussion included a witty contribution from Ben Reid of Midcounties on Co-operative Energy’s participation in the formation of the European Federation of Renewable Energy Co-operatives.
The next session was a report on work in 2015 bringing the annual report to life. This included mentions of advocacy, energy and the European Young Co-operators Network. The work on international development was impressive and it was encouraging to see familiar faces from the UK’s Co-operative College on the Cooperatives Europe Development Platform.
Both Co-operatives UK and Midcounties were among the co-sponsors of the event and it was good to see colleagues from Midcounties and East of England Societies in attendance.
The statutory business included critical questions around the business modelling and strategy of the organisation. Income for
2015 was €783,000 and a small surplus of €2,600 was achieved. The membership report noted that the Plunkett Foundation has ceased to be a member.
For a small organisation, Cooperatives Europe’s range of activities is impressive – however it would be wrong to assume that this was a self congratulatory event. The membership set demanding standards and there is a feeling in some quarters that these have not been met. There is considerable disquiet about the management of the co-operatively owned Co-operative House in Brussels which is a complex tale that does not reflect well on the organisation.
On a more positive note, the highlight of the event was the fellowship with co-operators from across the continent. Finnish colleagues were still talking about last year’s UK delegation to the SOK retail co-operative – this had made a great impression and they offered to host a repeat visit if there is demand.
It was also good to show solidarity with Belgian colleagues – the venue being just around the corner from Maelbeek metro station, one of the sites subjected to a bomb attack by terrorists on 22 March.
- Next year’s Assembly is to be hosted by co-operators in Malta. Cooperatives Europe promotes the cooperative business model in Europe. It has 83 member organisations from 32 European countries, representing 123 million individual members. The full Key Figures 2015 report is available here.