The idea of countries across Europe working together to promote co-operation is not new. The 1957 Treaty of Rome, one of the EU’s founding documents, contained the right for co-operative business to exist within the EU. Since then the role and impact of mutual and co-operative societies, both socially and economically, has expanded considerably. Today co-operatives in Europe are stronger than ever, and with EU support this growth will only continue to grow.
It is important to recognize the European Union as a powerful example of international co-operation. By working together with other European countries to build the world’s largest market- over 550 million customers- British businesses can create jobs and establish themselves within the global marketplace. But these advantages extend beyond the economy, allowing for co-operation in tackling climate change, organised crime, and global poverty by way of fairtrade.
The strength and scope of the co-operative movement across the countries of the European Union is considerable. A report by the European Commission’s Co-operative Working Group says that more than 160,000 enterprises across Europe are co-operatives, owned by a total of 123 million individual member-owners, and providing jobs to 5.8 million of the EU’s citizens. Co-operatives are also sources of innovation and provide important resources to otherwise underserved areas of the market.
Cooperatives are also major players in key sectors of the European economy, such as banking, agriculture, insurance, retail commerce, housing, social services, health, education, and renewable energy. Additionally, thanks to their member-owned business model, co-operatives are also a source of ‘smart growth’, in many cases providing innovative responses to needs that are not being met by other types of enterprises.
Europe-wide co-operative bodies provide guidance, structure and resources so that co-operative enterprises can better serve their members and communities. For example, Co-operatives Europe is made up of over 90 member societies, and represent more than 150,000 different enterprises. The International Co-operative Alliance, a worldwide federation of co-operative and mutual organisations, also plays a key role by representing and advocating for over 50 organisations across EU member states. The importance of these organisations speaks to the power of international co-operation in maintaining co-operative enterprises throughout Europe.
The achievements of individual co-operative and mutual organisations throughout the EU must also be recognised. In Spain, Fundacio Espiritu provides a network of mutual and co-operative health institutions, and the Spanish Business Confederation of Social Economy unifies mutual and co-operative organisations with disparate interests, allowing them to operate under a comprehensive framework that promotes the values of co-operation in a variety of different areas.
In Sweden, HSB Riksforbund is doing impressive work in providing and managing Co-operative Housing throughout the country, with over half a million co-op homes falling under its purview. Mondragon, a corporation and federation of worker co-operatives, originated in Spain but has expanded its reach internationally and across the continent, bringing manufacturing jobs and export revenues to Ireland, Portugal, and France. Remaining close to both the European co-operative movement and Europe-wide institutions allows British co-operatives to more easily learn from these successes.
There is much to be proud of when surveying the landscape of the co-operative movement across Europe. Individual mutual and co-op organisations play a significant role – whether in housing, banking, health, or energy, and EU-wide institutions continue to assist the development of co-operative movements within member states. Working groups set up by the European Commission and independent European organisations continue to advocate on behalf of the wider movement and consider important questions of co-operative development going forward.
Co-operation across Europe has proven essential to our movement’s advances in the past and is integral to its growth in the future.