Could Syriza boost the co-operative economy in Greece?

While the Eurogroup discusses its next steps following the decision to extend financial assistance to Greece by up to four months, there are indications that left-wing Syriza’s win...

While the Eurogroup discusses its next steps following the decision to extend financial assistance to Greece by up to four months, there are indications that left-wing Syriza’s win in January could boost the co-operative sector. Reaching an agreement with European counterparts remains the new government’s top priority, but rebuilding the country’s economy is another major pledge made by Syriza prior to this year’s election.

In its manifesto, Syriza highlights the importance of reviving the co-op movement as a form of social and economic activity for the future, and suggests drawing up a strategy by looking at the most suitable sectors for co-operative development. The party sees the co-op movement as a distinct economic model that would be part of the broader social and solidarity economy.

When incoming prime minister Alexis Tsipras presented his agenda to parliament, he made a commitment to growing the social economy, including co-ops.

One of the symbols of the revival of the social and solidarity economy in Greece is VioMe in Thessaloniki. When their factory went bankrupt, the workers, who had not been paid for over a year, occupied the building to prevent the owner from taking away the machinery and products in stock. The factory is now in public administration and the workers are fighting a legal battle for ownership of the enterprise. They are also calling for a change in the legal framework allow the workers to take over an enterprise.

Visiting VioMe prior to the election, Mr Tsipras promised to support this effort with legal reforms. He has also spoken about the importance of co-operative banks as a vehicle for development.

According to Lukas Mprechas, co-founder of the Network for Social Solidarity and Regional Development (KAPA Network), Syriza has shown interest in the movement over the last two years.

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“Syriza has created committees to prepare a new co-op legislation,” he says. “There has been emphasis on legislation for the transfer of the companies that have been closed to the workers, for the establishment of co-operatives of similar standards to Latin America and France.

“In recent years, the leaders of Syriza were prepared to listen to organisations such as ours, which are trying to promote co-ops to all Greek political parties, about the benefits of co-operatives in terms of decent living for people. They were already prepared to listen to calls for co-operative legislation which would adequately support the co-operative principles and the promotion of co-operative education.”

Syriza has launched a public consultation to gather opinions about the promotion of the social economy. Another online platform, Solidarity4all, showcases different examples of informal co-operation, from social pharmacies to grocery stores or free lessons, including newly formed co-ops. Syriza has helped the Solidarity4All initiative, with each MP donating 10-20% of their wage to the campaign.

But Mr Mprechas says most solidarity groups across Greece have not tapped into this funding.

“These movements include people from across the political spectrum,” he says. “So far, they have not created relationships of dependency with Syriza.”

Another co-operative flagship project is the Halandri Parents Social Co-operative Enterprise. In a bid to change the way education is delivered, the co-op has developed a number of projects, including a co-op school of private tuition, which opened two years ago.

Dinos Palyvos, a parent and one of the founders of Halandri Parents Social Co-operative Enterprise, welcomes Syriza’s commitment to co-operative development. “Even though this does not mean that from one day to the next the co-operative idea will become a reality in its most genuine form, it is a clear indication that something is changing for the better,” he says. “I have long ago lost faith in politicians and this bunch is no exception, but any structural change that will give me the opportunity to further the truly co-operative movement in my country is most welcome.

“The real problem in Greece – and some people hope that the new government will make a difference – is that even though the legislation exists, people who want to set up co-operatives are often treated with distrust by the authorities. The profit-driven market clearly opposes co-operatives because they are the perfect example of how a world without their twisted logic is perfectly within everyone’s reach.”

Asked whether there was a risk that the social and solidarity movement could be assimilated by the government, Mr Mprechas said that some officials have referred to a “social control of co-operatives”.

He stressed the importance of co-ops as autonomous organisations, controlled by their members.

“This confusion exists because Syriza promotes the ‘social and solidarity economy’ – two concepts which, in our opinion, use different methods, even if they have the same purpose: to meet the needs of the people. The ‘social’ economy structures are legal entities that make financial transactions, while within the ‘solidarity’ economy there are informal voluntary schemes, which do not trade with money,” he said.

“The social and solidarity economy, in Syriza’s reports, includes known structures, such as co-ops, associations and mutual funds, and public structures such as municipal social grocery stores, pharmacies and clinics, which offer free services to vulnerable groups. So there is an open door for the state incorporating all the structures of the ‘social and solidarity economy’ in a single philosophy.

“We have pointed out that risk to Syriza, and they seemed to understand, but we do not know the internal balances on this issue.”

The KAPA Network is trying to increase communication between the Syriza and international co-op organisations such as the International Cooperative Alliance and the co-operative branch of the International Labour Organization. The exchange is designed to help secure a “proper co-operative legislation” and a relationship between civil society and the government, says Mr Mprechas.

On 6 March, a workshop led by Kapa and Cooperatives Europe created a co-operative development strategy, calling for a modern general co-op law, a regional co-operative business network and a national umbrella organisation for Greek co-ops.

Cooperatives Europe also met with the government. Director Klaus Niederländer said: “Co-ops from around Europe can play a role in the creation of a modern co-operative economy. Cooperatives Europe has been supporting this process over the last three years and will continue to search for avenues to support such positive development.”

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