As Cooperatives Europe marks its tenth anniversary, the News speaks to director Klaus Niederländer about its work and the future of the movement in Europe.
One in five people in Europe is a member of a co-operative – and, as the movement continues to grow across the continent, so does Cooperatives Europe, the regional office of the International Co-operative Alliance.
The Alliance has been around since 1895 but Cooperatives Europe, which works to facilitate the development of co-ops and increase knowledge of the model, is only now marking its tenth anniversary. It was formed in 2006 when co-ops decided their EU lobbying system – done by six organisations on a sectoral level – was inadequate. They created the new office by merging ICA Europe, a one-person operation within the Alliance, with the EU consultation mechanism to create a separate legal entity.
Its initial team of four has grown to 10 people, representing around 80 national members from 33 European countries. It looks after 160,000 co-operative enterprises from all sectors of the economy, with 123 million members and 5.4 million employees. This includes co-ops from all sectors, from the traditional areas of agriculture, banking and retail, to housing, industry, pharmacies, renewable energy, the digital economy and healthcare.
To mark its tenth birthday, Cooperatives Europe organised a meeting on 20 April at its annual general assembly in Brussels. The opening ceremony saw the two founding co-presidents of Cooperatives Europe, Dame Pauline Green and Etienne Pflimlin, honoured with Cooperatives Europe’s first gold medal. Representatives from the European Commission, the European Parliament and other partner organisations in Brussels attended the evening launch of the first European co-operative statistics report, The Power of Co-operation.
This report shows that co-ops provide more than 4.7 million jobs and have a total annual turnover of €1,005bn.
To find out Cooperatives Europe’s plans for the future, Co-operative News talked to director Klaus Niederländer, who has led the organisation since 2010. He looks at the main barriers faced by European co-ops and the advantages of working together.
Co-operative News: What is the state of the European co-operative movement? How has the recession affected co-ops and how have they responded?
Klaus Niederländer: Since 2000, we have seen a rebirth of co-operatives around Europe, after the 1990s was marked by demutualisations. In a number of countries, half their co-operative members have been created after 2000. There has been dynamism in new sectors, such as health, education and renewable energy, while the traditional sectors continue a phase of consolidation due to strong competition in their markets, and through rediscovering their co-op roots. The last 10 years in Europe have not been easy for co-ops. At the same time, their locally-rooted model and resilience has created interest.
Key challenges remain – on the one hand, to create a level playing field with other forms of business, reflected in better-balanced laws and regulations. And, on the other hand, the better promotion of co-ops, in particular in education, so there are more people knowledgeable about co-operatives that can create and get engaged. The digital economy is another challenge as it provides many opportunities, but also considerable risks.
How to address all this? Through more co-operation and exchange at European level, as national solutions are not enough any more. Just as co-operatives moved to the national level – after arising locally and regionally – by developing centralised services (like in IT or marketing) and fostering co-operation between the regions, now globalisation has taken them beyond borders into new markets and new co-operation possibilities.
While there are certainly many business opportunities for co-ops working with each other in different European countries, there is also the need to work together more on issues of common concern, such as financing, co-operative entrepreneurship, education and business development services. The lack of knowledge, contacts and networks, and actual operational practice about what co-operatives in other European countries are doing with regard to those challenges can only be overcome by greater exchange and co-operation.
Individual business co-operations are useful, but not sufficient. It will require a European co-operative dimension through joint educational exchange, financial co-operation and aggregated research. In many parts, it is still at an early stage – but, through digital technology, businesses are transforming very quickly and undermining existing business models, including those of co-ops. Better to act than react and invest in institutional, knowledge and network capital in Europe.
Cooperatives Europe focuses on strengthening co-operation among its direct members, mainly the national co-operative associations. Yet through specific projects, such as in entrepreneurship education or the digitalisation of the economy, co-ops will be implicated directly.
CN: What are your key projects?
KN: Next to our regular monitoring of EU policies, in terms of legal, financial and fiscal matters of concern, our proactive work concentrates on co-operative positions as one of the main actors in the social economy, on positioning co-ops in the new field of the ‘sharing economy’, and in promoting co-ops within SME [small and medium-sized enterprises] policy, in particular with regard to co-operative entrepreneurship and education, financing of co-ops and business development services.
With regard to member projects and advocacy support programmes, our international focus is on a five-year ‘Cooperatives in Development’ programme financed by the EU with the International Co-operative Alliance and the other regions.
In Europe, we are focusing on promoting new co-operative developments, such as in energy or elderly care, through targeted projects and events. And we are promoting the transfer of business to co-ops through a special EU project.
Finally, we constantly aim to foster more exchange between members, getting to know each other better and learn from each other. Our European co-operative report, The Power of Cooperation, is a result of such a co-operation with members over the last 18 months.
CN: What are Cooperatives Europe’s plans for the future?
KN: In only 10 years Cooperatives Europe has become a recognised business organisation in Europe, bringing the co-operative voice into EU policies. The co-op bottom-up approach will always have its limitations in EU lobbying compared to the top-down, centralised business organisations and companies, who have more resources. Our strength is our members and the degree to which we can mobilise them for joint projects and programmes across borders. With little means, but great member engagement, we have advanced very quickly in the domains of international development and renewable energy.
We plan to mobilise this further – to promote co-operative answers in key policy challenges, such as youth unemployment, social inequality and decent work, benefiting from the digital economy.
CN: The Alliance has recently signed a partnership with the European Commission. What does this mean for Coops Europe?
KN: The five-year partnership Cooperatives in Development between the EC and the co-operative movement is a direct result of Cooperatives Europe’s international development work with the EC over the last five years.
Thanks to our development advocacy, co-operatives have been recognised by the EC as an important development actor being part of civil society and at the same time a local economic actor. This work has led internally to the creation of the Cooperatives Europe Development Platform, an internal committee of all European co-operative development actors. This EU programme will build on this and take our work to the next level by bringing in the whole Alliance system. The programme will strengthen our work and relations – with the other regions and globally – and reinforce our international development advocacy, research and communication activities.