European co-ops respond to Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union Speech

Cooperatives Europe and Cecop have given their view on the announcement, which included crisis measures such as an SME Relief Package

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State of the Union Speech to the European Parliament on 14 September in the presence of Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska.

Von der Leyen highlighted the key challenges and priorities for Europe, particularly around the energy crisis, suggesting measures such as cap on the revenues of companies that produce electricity at a low cost, establishing a new benchmark for the gas market, reforming of the electricity market, investing in renewable energy and creating of a European Bank for hydrogen.

She also mentioned how workers at Italian co-op Ceramiche are saving energy by starting work at six in the morning to use sunlight and to avoid turning on the fans.

And she announced the launch of an SME Relief Package, a measure welcomed by sector apex Cooperatives Europe.

This year, we will be expecting an SME relief package with a proposal for a single set of tax rules called BEFIT,” said a Cooperatives Europe statement. “While promoting an enabling business environment is strongly encouraged, we remain more cautious on the fiscal aspect. Co-operatives’ fiscal treatment varies between member states and reflects co-operatives’ specific principles and differences in management logic. Work on that topic will require a thorough stakeholders’ consultation, of which we stand ready to be part.”

The apex also approves of the Commission’s initiatives around on skilling and re-skilling in the workforce. “As the Commission announced 2023 to become the European Year of Skills, we hope to see this momentum used to better promote co-operative entrepreneurship in higher education and management training,” it said.

The apex says it will continue to engage with the EU institutions. Upcoming European initiatives include the council recommendation establishing framework conditions for the social economy, the transition pathways and the work on sustainable corporate governance, all of which could impact co-ops.

The European Confederation of Industrial and Service Cooperatives (Cecop) also welcomed some of von der Leyen’s announcements but said it regretted the omission of the social dimension.

“In the 2022 State of the Union address, the Commission president has made important commitments to relieve economic pressure on European businesses and citizens, which Cecop welcomes,” said the organisation’s president Giuseppe Guerini. “Unfortunately, little has been said on the social dimension of the EU. Support to social cohesion is essential to building the EU’s resilience and social economy, including co-operatives, are key stakeholders in this.”

Cecop welcomed the promise of support for companies and citizens who are struggling with the increased energy prices, and the EU’s commitment to ensure accessibility of critical raw materials, but added that the announced SME Relief Package must be fully available to co-operatives across the EU.

“Our industry co-operatives, in particular, are key partners for the EU on its way to develop a more sovereign economy and to advance with a just digital and green transition mentioned by the Commission President, but face a number of challenges that must be tackled urgently,” it added.

Cecop also welcomed the Commission’s commitment to come forward with new ideas for the EU’s economic governance in October. “We expect these new rules to move away from the focus on austerity and to facilitate strategic investment by the member states in order to address outstanding social and economic challenges and to promote a fair digital and green transition,” it said.

With the Year 2023 being declared the European Year of Education and Training, Cecop pointed out that skills development is essential for the future of European workers and businesses, in particular SMEs.

“Co-operatives both invest in their employees’ reskilling and upskilling, and benefit from broader skill development measures. This is why Cecop has already joined the Skills partnership for the Proximity & Social Economy ecosystem,” it said.

As to the negatives, Cecop said it regretted the omission of the EU’s social dimension from the State of the Union speech.

“The crises currently facing the EU require it to step up and deliver direct, immediate and broad actions to promote social cohesion. Social justice and social peace will be key to the upcoming European elections. Quality working conditions will be key to tackle staff shortages, and to contribute to resilient and sustainable development of the European economy.

“Cecop hopes to see social policies, the European Pillar of Social Rights and the implementation of the Social Economy Action Plan high on the working agenda of the Commission for 2023.”