This document has been made available in electronic format by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) 

Introduction  by Lars Hillbom, President ICA Europe (1998)

March, 1998
(Source: Studies and Reports. Thirty-first in the series
The Impact of the European Union’s Enlargement on Co-operatives. Papers presented at a seminar held in Prague 3-4 November 1997,  p. 5-6 )

Dear Co-operators,

This booklet contains presentations made at the ICA European Seminar, held in Prague in November 1997, on the impact on co-operatives of the European Union’s enlargement. It is the first time that ICA has put this extremely important issue on the agenda, but it definitely will not be the last. The enlargement is an irreversible process which reflects fundamental European interests.  I am convinced that co-operatives have a major role to play in this process.

One of the priorities of ICA Europe has been to help countries in transition establish democratic and economically viable co-operative structures that will be able to compete in the European market. From now on this assistance should primarily be aimed at preparing the co-operatives of Central and Eastern Europe for successful integration into Europe.

It is not by accident that co-operatives have been called “schools for democracy”. As forerunners of the democratic changes in Central and Eastern Europe, which began in 1989, they have once again proven that they deserve this qualification. There are correlations between progress towards democracy, moves towards a market economy and economic growth. That is why co-operatives have a specific role to play in shaping the new map of Europe.

It is of vital importance that, in the preparation for accession, the associated countries have a carefully designed strategy. As an integral part of national economies, co-operatives should be involved in this preparation right from the beginning and should have their say in the process.

While the European Union is assessing the impact of enlargement on its policy, the ICA has been investigating the possible impact of the enlargement on co-operative structures and activities in countries which will shortly become members of the Union.

I hope that, by reading this booklet, those ICA member organisations which could not attend the seminar will obtain an overall picture of the present situation and will better understand the process of enlargement. The working group sessions made it clear that more exchanges of experience will be necessary with countries that have recently joined the Union. At the same time the cases of long standing members of the Union, which at the time of their accession were at a similar level of economic development as the countries presently seeking entry, are also worthwhile studying.

With a membership of 700 million individuals, the ICA is the largest non-governmental organisation and one of the largest representatives of the civil society which exists today. The European Commission needs the contribution of co-operatives to ensure that the integration of new members will evolve as smoothly and as quickly as possible.

Lars Hillbom
President ICA Europe