Social Economy Europe: “No growth is worthwhile unless it is underpinned by sustainability”

26th Jun, 2022

Social Economy Europe (SEE) is the voice of 2.8 million Social Economy enterprises and organisations in Europe and was established in 2000 to represent the collective interests of cooperatives, mutuals, associations and charities, foundations and social enterprises, among other legal and organisational forms. Since its creation, SEE is also the secretariat of the European Parliament’s Social Economy Intergroup. We spoke to Victor Meseguer, the organisation’s director, about what social democracy really means today.

1) First of all, please tell us more about the vision of your organisation and how your membership contributes to your goals?

The social economy is a diverse universe of organisations and enterprises of all sizes, ranging from SMEs to large transnational corporations. According to the latest data in the EU there are 2.8 million social economy enterprises and organisations, employing 13.6 million people – 6.3% of the EU’s workforce – and accounting for 8% of the GDP. All these organisations share common values and characteristics as the primacy of people as well as social and/or environmental purpose over profit, the reinvestment of most of the profits and surpluses to carry out activities in the interest of members/ users or society at large, and democratic/participatory governance.

Therefore, our vision is building a more diverse economy that works for people and the planet, and a more favourable ecosystem for the further development of social economy entrepreneurship across the EU and beyond. In this sense, last December, the Commission presented its Social Economy Action Plan, an ambitious public policy for which we have been collectively advocating since 2014. Thanks to our members, we are able to bring the national dimension to our European work. Working with our members enables us to collect experiences from the ground so as to inform and influence policy making at the European level.

2) What are the key points on which you want to base an inclusive green and digital transition in Europe?

SEE’s response to the European Commission’s consultation on Scenarios for co-creating transition pathways to a resilient, sustainable and digitally mastered ecosystem is the result of collective work with our members. Social economy has the potential to lead a fair and inclusive green and digital transition in Europe and, in this regard, SEE can play a pivotal role. We have social economy innovators and entrepreneurs, the participation, the commitment from the main EU institutions, and last but not least the citizens, all ready to take the future into their own hands and become enablers of change. We see it in every economic sector.

SEE has the capacity to mobilise stakeholders “on the ground” and create shared value, especially at the local level. Another key SEE priority is to build alliances for upskilling social economy entrepreneurs while building alliances to increase access to finance for ‘green’ projects. One of our main objectives is to see an increase from 6.3% to at least 10% of all jobs by 2030.

3) How connected is your work and the outlining of your goals in sustainable development and climate action?

SEE and its members are aligned with sustainable development – it’s in our DNA. No growth is worthwhile unless it is underpinned by sustainability. For instance, in the paper ‘For a Sustainable Europe by 2030’, the European Commission states that the social economy is a driver for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and its 17 sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of our main objectives is to create an ecosystem for the social economy in Europe from sustainable and inclusive economic growth. Another example, the social economy pays great attention to the inclusion of vulnerable people, especially people with disabilities. Among the social economy entities, in fact, there are Working Integration Social Enterprises (WISEs), that are especially focused on giving access to disadvantaged people to employment.

Social economy entities given their intrinsic features and purposes can play a key role in the achievement of the SDGs, as they already have proved combining the creation of jobs with responsible social and environmental practices. We are persuaded that it is possible to adopt an alternative way of doing business, putting people first, reducing inequalities, working for cohesion, promoting inclusion and reinvesting profits for social or environmental purposes, yet being solid and successful companies.

4) In your opinion, was the COVID-19 pandemic the spark that triggered a cross-cutting revolution at the base of our society or did it just follow the normal course of things?

COVID-19 has changed a lot of things, actually. We are now, more than two years ago, aware of the importance of healthcare, and absolutely immersed in digitalisation. In addition, it is necessary to mention the loss of jobs and the closure of companies during those two years. We knew that the social economy was a resilient model, an economy that goes forward serving people and the planet, but now it’s clearer than ever.

It may sound confusing, but the pandemic was a great opportunity to reaffirm the potential of the social economy. There are numerous examples of enterprises that have kept jobs and created new ones, bailing out companies that were about to go out of business, and turning them into social economy. More interestingly, some social start-ups were created to respond to the resulting social challenges. A strong reason why I think COVID-19 has empowered our socio-economic model and is now clearly the future standard for Europe’s recovery.

5) Do you think this war in Ukraine could escalate into a new dichotomy between democracy vs autocracy?

This is exactly an attack on democracy, and democracy will prevail. The social economy is a project of peace, solidarity and cooperation and indeed has democracy at its core. A movement arising from a free civil society in order to provide collective solutions to social issues. There is no room for autocracy and violation of social rights.

However, even in this tragic context, the potential of the Social Economy is crucial. We have been in contact with the Ukrainian Social Academy, with which SEE has been collaborating for many years and many entrepreneurs and organisations are committed to providing help and assistance to those in need and to responding to the current issue of internally displaced people − they will be the key actors in the rebuilding of Ukraine. Unequivocally, we call for peace, and advocate for freedom, democracy and cooperation.

6) What’s up your sleeve as 2022’s headline event?

“The main event for the EU Social Economy family in 2022 is about to come and will be the Strasbourg Conference titled “Social Economy, the future of Europe”. This conference, organised by the French Presidency of the Council of the EU will be a great opportunity to debate and exchange views among decision-makers and social economy stakeholders concerning the role that social economy can play for the future of Europe. In the agenda there are over twenty plenaries, workshops and conferences on entrepreneurship, public policies, innovation, cooperation, inclusion, funding, solutions for the Future and so many more. For two days during the conference, all social economy actors and institutions will share points of view and tools to push the social economy forward for a better Europe for us all.”

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