Written by Nora Milotay,
Traditionally the social economy is considered to be an ever-growing set of private, formally organised enterprises and networks that build on multiple types of resources and cooperation, with local anchorage and democratic and participatory decision-making processes. Its primary aim is not to make profit but to meet the needs of its members and that of the wider society. The social economy is active in an increasing number of sectors, and while some of its actors are small non-profit organisations, others are large organisations with international outreach. It generates 6 to 8 % of the European Union’s gross domestic product (GDP). However, it is a driver not only of economic activity but also of normative values, such as solidarity and inclusion. Since its conception in the 19th century, it has taken on board innovation in social relations and in societal and community spheres, human development targets and socio-political empowerment.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, with new risks and opportunities arising owing to the twin digital and green transformations there is an emerging debate, rethinking economic growth theories with more focus on inclusion and combatting inequality, and exploring the relevance of traditional welfare state models. This debate has intensified in the wake of the 2008 crisis, and now also as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and crisis. The social economy can play a central role in this context. While it has been badly affected by these crises, it also has the potential to mitigate some of the negative impacts. The social economy’s values-based approach to the economy can enable it to generate new elements in the ecosystems in which it exists and be an important ‘engine’ in the immediate recovery and the longer-term possible restructuring of the economy towards more resilience, fairness and sustainability.
For the social economy to be able to reach its full potential across the Member States and help to achieve green and inclusive growth with renewed welfare state models, it needs to be supported simultaneously at all levels. EU action can contribute to this. The main areas of EU intervention are: facilitating access to finance and markets, including the digital single market; creating better framework conditions, including for cooperation and cross-border activity; supporting innovation, including new business models; and developing international relations. The Commission action plan on the social economy expected in 2021 might address many of these issues.
Read the complete briefing on ‘What future for the social economy?‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.
Listen to policy podcast ‘What future for the social economy?’ on YouTube.