By Ricardo Río, Mayor of Braga (Portugal), Member of the European Committee of the Regions
Over 500 representatives from very diverse backgrounds, from local institutions to highest national and EU levels, gathered in San Sebastián for the Social Economy Conference which main theme was precisely: “People, Planet, Action”.
This two-day Conference provided very interesting discussions, a clearer perspective of the value and strength of Social Economy (SE) in each territory and clear commitments from different stakeholders to create a more favourable framework to its development and visibility.
Traditional themes like funding opportunities, access to markets, public procurement procedures, the improvement of SE workers skills or the release of reliable stats and data were addressed. In the end, the San Sebastián Manifesto (San Sebastián Declaration) was adopted by 19 countries, as well as by the European Economic Social Committee, the European Committee of the Regions and the Social Economy Europe Presidents.
Personally, it was a pleasure to represent there the European Committee of the Regions, the European Union assembly of local and regional elected local leaders, from all 27 Member States, and an institution with a large set of interventions in this topic.
At the Committee of the Regions, we see that the social economy has plenty of untapped potential and we have many shared interests. Along with other European institutions and organisations, we are fully committed to promoting the social economy.
Even today, hundreds of cooperatives, social enterprises, associations and foundations are an essential part of our local ecosystems. Locally rooted, these actors know and respond to the needs in our communities. By doing so, they are crucial not only in fostering fair, inclusive and sustainable local development and economic growth, providing jobs as well as goods and services, but also proposing innovative solutions and contributing to the social cohesion and wellbeing in our communities.
The increasing interest in the sector reflects the need for an economy that reconciles social, economic and financial dimensions and proximity, able to create wealth that is not measured only by financial, but also by social capital.
Moreover, the capacity of the social economy for social innovation increases its relevance in tackling our current, multiple socio-economic challenges. For example, as we need to speed up the green transition, we can foster cooperation, linking social economy and local green deals, to facilitate the green transition of our communities. Such examples are also highlighted in our “Green Deal Going Local” -initiative, in which we gather and share best practice to encourage their broader uptake.
Also, in many more rural or remote regions, social economy can be a major lever for the local development and has proven its resilience and potential for growth. For example, cooperative banks or micro-finance institutions in rural or less developed regions can facilitate financial inclusion and investments in local small enterprises.
Of course, we must also ensure that European funds and investment programs are accessible to social economy actors, at the local and regional level. The new EU Social Economy Gateway, as part of the Social Economy Action Plan, will hopefully make it easier to access information on EU funding, policies and training available to social economy actors across regions.
As this year is the European Year of Skills, it highlights the need to step up support, capacity building and upskilling also as regards the social economy, and to help green and digitalise their practices and operations. To this end, we promoted the Pact of Skills and the Youth Entrepreneurship Policy Academy to improve prospects for young social entrepreneurs.
The strong community dimension of the social economy thrives on strong partnerships between its actors and the local authorities. As we have expressed in our opinions – on the Social Economy Action Plan, and in our outlook opinion issued upon request of the European Commission for the drafting of the proposal for a Council Recommendation on social economy framework conditions of which I was the rapporteur, – we stand ready to work together to reinforce the social economy and to help it grow.
We have also called for more visibility of the social economy model, and for more coherence and convergence in policies at all levels of government, easing mutual recognition of social economy actors to enhance their capacity to operate also cross-border.
To work towards these goals, we warmly welcomed the Social Economy Action Plan, but we also believe it is high time that we push on, all together, to step up delivery on both the Action Plan and the Council Recommendation. As representatives of cities and regions, the Committee of the Regions and its members stand ready to assist in this crucial task. In general, but in particular regarding access to finance and markets, the social economy still lacks a more ‘level playing field’.
And that is why I would like to conclude by enhancing what not been considered in this very important “Manifesto”, like the creation of an institutional set-up that involves a subsidiarity approach between the European, national, regional and local levels of government; or the establishment of an “operational concept” of social economy, which would allow for more coherence and convergence in policies at European, national and regional levels and would ease mutual recognition (capacity to operate cross-border) of the social economy model.