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

Speaker Pauline Green (1998)
 

March, 1998
(Source: Studies and Reports. Thirty-first in the series
The Impact of the European Unionís Enlargement on Co-operatives. Papers presented at a seminar held in Prague 3-4 November 1997,  p. 11-15 )
 

Europe lies at a crucial juncture.  Whether you regard the enlargement of the EU as the ultimate historical moment to unify Europe  or whether you see it as an enhanced trading opportunity, the decisions and processes of enlargement are, without question, the most significant for generations.

The pace of enlargement, which countries come in first,  in what order,  in ones and twos or blocks,  is, in the wider scale of things, unimportant.

There are many reasons for enlargement.  But all should be aware that the current EU Member States are not engaged in some major effort of altruism.  Rather the opposite.  They are acting from an overriding vested interest. A vested interest that tells them that the costs of non-enlargement are greater than the costs of enlargement.  A vested interest that tells them that they cannot succeed in the global market if Europe remains divided, with all its potential for conflict, destabilisation, economic dislocation, political confusion and mass migration.

If the EU is to cope with the challenges of the US, Pacific Rim and, increasingly, India, China and other parts of the developing world, it must respond with new, innovative structures and approaches.  One thing the current EU Member States have realised is that no one of them is any longer able to offer their people a long term future on their own.  The global market, coupled with the revolution of the information society, has, is and will increasingly change the working, educational, social and cultural life in Europe.

However, vested interest is not, in this context, to be seen as negative  or somehow murky in moral terms.  Rather it is the best guarantee to all the applicant states that their future lies in the European Union.  Not only does future prosperity across the EU depend crucially on stability, peace and proper democratic evolution in the wider EU;  but the global market is increasingly leading to regional economic groupings across the world - the EU is, without doubt,  the biggest and most advanced market and not to build on that would be folly.

So enlargement is to happen.  Is there a role for co-operatives?  I believe there is. Firstly, the major internal crisis of the EU is employment.  How to provide worthwhile work for Europe's people and, in particular, to address the structural imbalances caused by globalisation.  Let nobody here believe the simplistic nonsense that the 18 million + unemployed in the EU is caused by the convergence criteria of the Maastricht Treaty driving for a single currency.  In looking for a strategy for job creation the EU is placing its major hope in the SME sector.  Co-operatives are a fundamental part of that sector and often constitute its most innovative, creative element.  It is at the micro end of the SME sector that co-operatives tend to occupy territory and it is here that the EU is seeking to put resources and support.  So in terms of economic regeneration co-operatives have a real role and opportunity. Secondly, co-operatives can play a role in preparing and supporting the evolution of a social market system in the applicant states of Central and Eastern Europe.

Those who believe that the enlargement of the EU can be achieved by a simple, mechanistic process frankly do not understand what the EU is all about and how it has developed in the last 40 years.

The economies of Central and Eastern Europe have without question gone (and are still going) through a cataclysm.  To their credit, significant progress has been made towards a new economic model in a desperately short time, and major steps have been made towards developing a system that is in line with the economic model in EU States.
But too often the model is fundamentally based on a deregulatory market system.  Too little attention has been given to creating a social market system.

Frankly, the prevailing model across the EU is not a simple deregulatory one.  Rather it is the social market system which understands that the philosophy of deregulation is only a partial answer to part  of the question of our economic future.  None of the EU states with sophisticated economies have abandoned their social market emphasis.  Even the UK, with its recent history of 20 years of neo-liberal market economy, has not jettisoned those areas of regulation and support which allows consensus with its people to be built.  Indeed it was the threat to that consensus which underlay the sweeping electoral defeat of the British Conservatives on 1 May this year and their replacement with a Labour Government committed to reform, adaptation and appropriate regulation to create a dynamic economy together with a healthy civic society and modern democracy.

Yes, the global market and the imperatives of competition have forced change and will continue to do so.  Competition will not become less in the opening years of the next millennium; it will get worse - tougher.  This means that Europe must adapt, change, reform its social market system - but frankly that is what we should have been doing anyway.  The mistake of many of our Member States has been to slip into a form of lethargy brought on by the success of the European social model and the public endorsement and value attached to its principles.  We forgot that we are engaged in a dynamic process and we have drifted away from that dynamism.  The reforms which are now being made are all the more painful for that.  BUT we will preserve the SOCIAL market system.

That social market system is supported and developed by a healthy civic society.  It is in the interaction between those two that co-operatives can play such an important role - not just to maximise benefits and surpluses to co-operative enterprises,  but because co-operation is about more than that.  co-operative principles of democracy, equality, education, ethical service, sustainable environmental protection - these are crucial components of a healthy dynamic civic society and on which society relies at times  of economic stress.

Those virtues have been vital in the EU during the economic troubles of the last decade - despite being under strain.  If anyone has any doubt about the potential perverse nature of EU involvement in a recently and rapidly industrialised country, whose undeveloped civic society has not been up to coping with a single European market, one need only look at the introduction of the Customs Union with Turkey!

Co-operatives are engaged successfully in a range of areas and skills which are needed and are important in the development of civic society:

Consider the role of housing co-operatives;  credit  unions; consumer co-operatives and the surge in ethical services in which the co-operative movement is taking a leading role.

Co-operative ventures, by their involvement in the wider democratic development, through training in leadership and management skills for the third sector, can give co-operative members a broad based confidence.

It is these skills, as well as our co-operative initiatives in the economy, which give co-operation a role into the next millennium; this role  can be just as dynamic and exciting in the next 150 years as it has been in the last 150.

Finally, if you examine the language of the European Union when it talks of enlargement, economics and the future of Europe, it talks the language of our co-operative movement - partnership, dialogue, cohesion, solidarity, sustainable development. It does all this without ever once acknowledging the role or even the presence of co-operatives.  We are, arguably, the largest non-governmental organisation in the world.  It is only us, within our Movement, who can redress the balance by creating the role which co-operatives deserve.
 

Pauline Green
MEP, President of the UK Co-operative Congress and Leader of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament