Forty years ago co-operative apex bodies from six European states held a meeting in Manchester where they agreed to set up Cecop, the European Confederation of co-operatives active in industry and services.
At the time, the UK was governed by Margaret Thatcher, who was breaking the country’s postwar political consensus. Her new approach changed the economic and fiscal policy both at national and global level. Economic liberalisation also led to changes in the world of work, with trade unions losing some of their influence.
Cecop president Giuseppe Guerini thinks the world now faces challenges similar to those of 1979, with illiberal populism on the rise in Europe and elsewhere. In response, he believes co-ops can play a key role in safeguarding democracy.
Speaking at the organisation’s 40th anniversary conference in Manchester, he looked at some of its main achievements in bringing co-ops together to share experience and speak with one voice.
Vice president Siôn Whellens said: “The purpose of us getting together is understanding one another, tackling the sometimes uneven development of our movement across Europe and being ready for global challenges.”
Rainer Schlüter, secretary general of Cecop from 1985 to 2004, said that in 1979 other sectoral organisations were representing European co-ops in retail, agriculture or banking. But these focused on sector-specific issues rather than lobbying for the co-op business model as a whole. To fill the gap, co-op bodies from across six European states joined Cecop not only to defend the worker co-op model, but also speak for the co-op concept with a single voice before European institutions.
Cecop’s permanent secretariat was established in 1982 in Brussels. Initial successes included getting co-ops for the first time on the agenda of MEPs in 1981 and securing a debate on a European co-operative code. But agreeing on a common message proved to be a challenge for Cecop’s members as well as other sectoral organisations.
“The histories and culture of co-op movements were very different and had very different rules,” said Mr Schlüter, adding that movements across different countries were worried their national co-operative culture would disappear in the event of a European co-operative statute. German co-ops were worried the ability of their apex body to approve the establishment of co-ops would be eroded, Italian co-ops had multiple organisations and voices, while French co-ops were afraid indivisible reserves rules could change.
If Italy and France had strong industrial co-ops at the time, Belgium had co-ops operating as an alternative economy model, and the UK movement included many radical worker-owned businesses. Likewise, Holland had its own model of very loose forms of self-managed enterprises, said Mr Schlüter, adding that Cecop needed to keep an open mind.
In the late 1980s the EC fully recognised the social economy sector through the creation in 1989 of a social economy unit in the DG Enterprise. Following multiple reorganisations the unit was replaced by the autonomous European Standing Conference of Co-operatives, Mutual societies, Associations and Foundations (CEP-CMAF), which adopted the name Social Economy Europe in 2007.
In the mid 1990s, Italian social co-ops joined Cecop, posing new challenges when it came to finding a common political message. Community businesses also emerged later in various European countries. These co-ops had been created in 1991 as worker co-ops, to provide employment for those at disadvantage; the model started being replicated all over Europe.
Co-op federations from former communist states in Eastern Europe also started joining in the 1990s. One of these was the National Union of Worker Co-ops (NAUWC) in Poland. Its president Janusz Paszkowski said: “The decision by the federation to join Cecop was one of the best the organisation made at the time.”
He said Cecop provided a platform for co-ops to showcase their role in other European countries. At that time, co-ops in Poland were seen as the remnants of communism and authorities were looking to introduce policies to put an end to them; around 18,000 co-ops (60%) were closed down.
In 2004 Krakow was chosen to host the European Social Economy conference. “That conference gathered 800 people from Poland and different countries, it was an important moment because it was the first time people in Poland heard about the social economy, what it stands for,” he said, adding: “The reason why we joined Cecop was to show them that co-ops are important.”
Cecop continued to engage with these countries in an attempt to share other European states’ experiences and make the case for the co-op sector. It also played a key role in setting up Cooperatives Europe in 2005, which now acts as the voice of all co-operative enterprises in Europe.
“We are strong only when we are strong everywhere,” said Mr Schlüter.
“The experience from Cecop can be used to explain to politicians and all those reluctant what the sector can do,” added Mr Paszkowski.
Currently, Cecop represents 40,000 co-ops with 1.3 million members. While membership currently includes only EU member states, Cecop is keen to have co-ops in non-EU states join.
“Our mission is to go eastern of what is today the EU,” said secretary general Diana Dovgan. A 2016 survey collecting membership data revealed that 77% of co-ops members are worker co-ops while 22% are social co-ops. The organisation is also keen to engage more with freelancer co-ops, an emerging trend in Europe, as well community co-ops, multistakeholder co-ops, platform co-ops and youth co-ops.
With transformations in the world of work, Cecop intends to provide new tools for these workers to have access to social protection and more security.
“We have to think about building alliances with co-ops in other sectors as well as other organisations,” said Ms Dovgan.
Diego Dutto, director of the Italian National association of co-operatives and social enterprises of Legacoop (Legacoop Sociali) added: “If I think of the Europe of 1979, I think of a Europe that no longer exists. We need to respond to current challenges; we are the first generation that accepts the world might end due to climate change – but the market has to continue.”
He added: “20 June was World Refugee Day – our movement can contribute culture of solidarity. What future can we expect? We need to respond promptly and organise. Social co-operatives must promote a culture of solidarity and resist. They must be ready for everything the future holds for us, whatever it is.”
In 2013 the European Commission established its Working Group on Cooperatives. Mr Guerini thinks co-ops and other social economy actors need to continue to work together to ensure the digitisation of the economy is done is a sustainable, ecological manner.
“We are not trendy ecologists like those in Silicon Valley – we believe sustainability has to do with how wealth is distributed,” he said, adding that co-ops needed to respond to the challenges posed by the digital revolution.
Some public procurement benefits were obtained in 2014 when the European Parliament adopted new rules on public procurement. Cecop welcomed the adopted EU rules, especially the new criterion of the “most economically advantageous tender”, which allows public authorities to place a stronger emphasis in the award procedure on quality, social aspects, environmental considerations or innovation.
In a video message to the conference, Ulla Englemann, head of unit advanced technologies, clusters and social economy at the EC, said co-ops had already proven their resilience during the 2008 economic crisis and through their ability to adapt to major economic transformations. She called on the sector to keep showing that economic performance is not incompatible with social benefits. She thinks co-ops are suitable models for digital innovation and platforms and developing disruptive technologies.
Juan Antonio Pedreño, president of Social Economy Europe, who has been a member of a local co-op in Murcia for 37 years, said: “Co-operatives are the backbone of social economy. There is momentum for the social economy to thrive in Europe.
“We need to make sure that the Social Economy Intergroup in the European Parliament is re-established.”
Intergroups are unofficial groupings of MEPs who are interested in a particular topic formed at the start of each parliamentary term.
Mr Pedreño also called on co-ops to continue to work with social economy actors to speak with a single voice.