Co-operatives across Europe face a major threat from a European Commission investigation.
The EC is investigating claims of unfair state aid handed to co-operatives across the continent. Co-operatives Europe has organised the Hands Off Our Co-ops campaign making a plea for co-operators to protect the business model by signing a petition.
A spokesman for Co-operatives UK, which is urging UK co-operators to get behind the campaign, said: "If the EC come to the wrong conclusion its decision could hurt some 250,000 co-operatives across Europe – including those in the UK. And it could be the thin end of the wedge with future legislative attacks from the private sector on co-operatives to be expected."
The investigation, which is expected to produce a draft position by the Commission in June, follows complaints by business bodies in Italy, Spain and France. All complaints focus on apparent unfair state aid, such as tax exemptions on oil for agricultural co-ops in Spain and favoured tax rates on financial reserves in Italy and France.
A draft position on the Spanish case is expected to be released in June. This could have a domino effect that would create a precedent and stipulate a new legal regime across all European member states, meaning co-operatives would be at risk of legal action and further Commission investigations.
Co-operatives Europe has posted an online petition appealing to Jose Manuel Barosso, President of the European Commission, and Neelie Kroes, the Competition Commissioner. The petition can be viewed at: www.coopseurope.coop.
On its campaign website, Co-operatives Europe comments: "The current legal cases against co-operatives before the European Commission are attempts by private companies to challenge national co-operative laws and tax regimes. It is another example of our competitors attempting to reduce consumers' choice, to steal our market share and to end our ethical challenge.
"The Commission decision may not just affect a few major co-operatives but it could present a risk to the whole co-operative system in all economic sectors across the EU. Small and large co-op enterprises could be affected and the co-op systems in many EU states could be subject to legal challenges."