What is the “social economy?”
Social economy enterprises and organisations are economic and social actors present in all sectors of society, which are set up in order to meet citizens’ needs. Driven by values such as solidarity, social responsibility and democracy, social economy enterprises present another form of entrepreneurship. Former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi once said that “they are competitive enterprises based on a solidarity that goes beyond the limits of the market and extends to social reality.”
The concept of “social economy” encompasses a great diversity of companies within the EU, but whilst it may differ from one Member State to another according to national legislation, for economic or historical reasons, it is commonly accepted to comprise cooperatives, mutuals, associations and foundations. Within the social economy sector, these four "families" are represented by AMICE and AIM for the mutual sector, Cooperatives Europe for the cooperatives, CEDAG for the associations and EFC for the foundations.
Source: European Commission.
Social economy and the European institutions
At the European level, back in 1989 Commission President Jacques Delors set up a unit entirely dedicated to the Social Economy within the European Commission’s Directorate General for Enterprise. Today, the continued existence of the Entrepreneurship and Social Economy unit shows that the European Commission continues to be aware of the importance of the sector.
Among the projects undertaken by the Social Economy Unit, one strove to improve the communication between the existing representative bodies and enhance relations within a somewhat uncoordinated sector. Created in 1998 and after undergoing several changes of name and structure, the EU-level representative umbrella organisation for the social economy sector is today Social Economy Europe (SEE).
Within the European Parliament, the Social Economy Intergroup, created in 1990, has established an impressive track record as a platform and facilitator of the inter-parliamentary dialogue and as a linking pin between the social economy sector and MEPs. The European Parliament has adopted many texts supporting the social economy and calling for its recognition in recent years, for example the resolution of 19 February 2009 or the report (authored by MEP Patrizia Toia) on the contribution of cooperatives to overcoming the financial and economic crisis.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), as mentioned in its different opinions related to the issue, is convinced that social enterprise is a key element of the European social model which, through its social innovation, will provide solutions to address societal challenges and be a factor in overcoming the crisis.
In 2012, the EESC commissioned CIRIEC, the International Centre of Research and Information on the Public, Social and Cooperative Economy, to deliver an updated report on the social economy in the EU.
Following on from this report, the Various Interests Group organised a conference at the EESC on 'Social Enterprises and the Europe 2020 Strategy: innovative solutions for a sustainable Europe'. Within the general framework of the 2012 UN International Year of Cooperatives, the objective of the event was to actively support social enterprises as significant actors in the implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy and of the Single Market.
In 2014, the EESC set up a working group of nine members interested in the social entrepreneurship agenda who will be joined by Commission representatives and experts with the aim of implementing a set of concrete and tangible actions stemming from the Strasbourg Declaration. A public hearing and a conference in the autumn of 2014 took this important issue forward. With the new mandate of the EESC in 2015, a Social Economy Category composed of thirty-seven members, thirty-six drawn from the Various Interests Group and one from the Employers Group, representing cooperatives, mutual, associations, foundations and social NGOs, was created. The first European Day of Social Economy Enterprises was organised on 1 July 2016.
An international conference "Unlocking the potential of the social economy for EU growth" was held under the Italian Presidency of the Council in November 2014 in Rome. The Luxembourg Presidency organised a conference "Boosting Social Enterprises in Europe" on 3-4 December 2015 which resulted in Council conclusions on the promotion of the social economy as a key driver of economic and social development in Europe. In December 2016, a conference organised under the Slovak EU Presidency resulted in a declaration signed by ten Member States on Social Economy as a key player in providing effective answers to current societal challenges in the EU and the world.