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

Speaker Ivano Barberini  (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. 21-25)

Dear fellow co-operators,

To give co-operation its rightful place in the process of European integration we must examine its role and development potential.  We must face the risks and grasp the opportunities offered by this complex process, located as it is within the framework of the global economy.

Europe is facing the need to compete in a deeply changing world which is undergoing a steady evolution.  It must learn to face this challenge without losing its social protection and security.  Government must give priority to employment development whilst, at the same time, build a society where welfare adds to the quality of life in the fields of environment, health, cultural traditions and the improvement of living conditions in each European country.  This will be based on an increase in productivity and innovations in the economic system, as well as upon solidarity and equality. In this context, co-operation has not been adequately taken into consideration, as the debate on a Statute for a the European Co-operative Society shows.  We have to admit that probably the co-operative organisations themselves are incapable of making their weight felt.  We need to develop a system of stronger relationships.

In carrying out the self-criticism of our position we must face the task with great intellectual honesty.  We should not hide, especially from ourselves, that European integration is proceeding whilst our co-operative movement is in decline.  Our European co-operative identity has been overshadowed and there is, at present, no strong voice expounding the relevance of our movement either within or without Europe.  We are looking inwards to ourselves, frequently taking just local dimensions into consideration.

The dangerous idea emerging is that alliances should be established with other stronger partners rather than within our co-operative organisations, but this would make joint action at European level even more difficult.  We need to tackle our decline with a huge effort, both individual and joint, by our co-operative societies and organisations at national and European levels to strengthen our identity and competitive capability.  Our new competitors come not just from other enterprises but from different economic systems as well.

I believe that co-operation can also expand in this complex phase.  It should compete in those areas which will ensure it a place in the market areas where it can function better than the multinationals.  This is a practical way to inspire entrepreneurial choice and transform ideals into practice and, in this way, we will not only gain credibility and trust, but also be able to compete effectively with financially stronger competitors.  The European co-operative movement could be re-launched into a new life cycle and fulfill its role in society by dispensing and socialising knowledge, and venturing into areas of joint work.

It must be understood, however, that ICA Europe could not undertake such a wide-ranging process with its own forces alone , but a firm initiative by them could be extremely relevant and they, together with different sectorial organisations, could draw a real strength from such a project.  We should think about new relationships between co-operative organisations according to their needs, the collaboration between western and eastern co-operatives being based on the exchange of knowledge, the training of managers and the learning of new jobs.

New member States have two difficult challenges to face: the harmonisation of legislation, and the introduction of the rules of the single market.  These create the need to learn how a single market works, and, in this instance, collaboration can best be used in the training of managers of eastern co-operative organisations.  Our action needs to be framed in a strong political and social initiative, targeted to contributing to the establishment of an open Europe with not just economic visions.  The opportunities are there for the co-operative movement to fill the gap between unsatisfied needs and unutilised human resources.

To set the target of a European Union enlarging progressively to include new countries, including Central and Eastern European countries, is surely a desirable path which will bring positive advantages and create opportunities for the development of the co-operative movement.  The general statements of principles about the roles of balance and social equity which co-operation can play in the European Union are strengthened by the problems of an enlarged Europe.  For Europe this is not only a political necessity but, as Agenda 2000 says, “an historic opportunity which cannot be missed”.

During the most dramatic hours of Europe under Nazi occupation, three Italian anti-Fascists - Eugenio Colorni, Ernesto Rossi and Altiero Spinelli - who had been banished to a small island called Ventotene for political reasons - conceived the prophetic “Manifesto for a Free and United Europe” which later became well-known and a source of inspiration for many generations of European Union supporters.  These ideas of liberty, justice and solidarity not limited by political, language or economic barriers are particularly relevant to a Europe without borders from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural mountains.  This brief history recognises that the Italian co-operative movement has always wanted and supported an open, enlightened, federalistic and humanistic European continent resulting from the integration of all its peoples.  This has not yet been fully accomplished but we should make our contribution to it.

The transition towards European unity started with Sweden, Finland and Austria joining the EU and continued with other countries taking this path to democracy.  There are short-term difficulties, such as a certain loss of autonomy and of economic cost, but these will be overcome.  They are difficult problems, but not unsolvable.  They can be faced by strengthening the decision-making processes within the EU to avoid the risk that new membership countries might bring problems which could lead to the disintegration of the whole European construction.  The gap still existing between the democratic standards of some eastern countries and the EU must be solved by integrating these countries, not by isolating them.  We must at all costs avoid a Europe with its countries at two levels, those destined to lead and those doomed to obey.

The most worrying factor to public opinion is the issue of cost, particularly with regard to the Common Agricultural Policy and the Structural Fund, which account for more than 80% of the whole EU budget.  The enlargement will increase the competition, particularly in the agricultural sector, and western farmers are afraid of losing their position in the European market.  However, this could be a positive element if it leads to an improvement in quality and diversity of choice and so help Europe to compete in the new global scenario.

Another problem of the enlargement of the EU is the necessity to protect agriculture, textile and other industries which are not able to face international competition.  This has been used as an argument against shifting the EU borders eastwards.  The co-operative movement should continue with its political and entrepreneurial roles in order to overcome these obstacles, and, in particular, it should find ways to provide aid to the Central and Eastern European countries to accelerate their time to integration and promote their social and democratic advance.  Areas of collaboration must be identified and ambitious projects conceived involving existing institutions and co-operatives.  The European co-operative movement should feel a binding moral commitment to lead in projects with the financial support of the Commission, and to help the Commission with its planned strategies for Central and Eastern European countries.

Another problem is the terrible unemployment level in large parts of the continent.  With integration the labour market becomes more flexible but the future of the worker becomes less certain, and this is exacerbated by there being no common labour policy in the EU.  We hope that an enlarged Europe will lead to policy makers and economic operators making a real drive to reduce the evil of unemployment.

Co-operation is historically linked to job creation and democratic labour organisation based on the active contribution and participation of workers, and has a strong interest in supporting what has been defined as the European New Deal, a uniquely valid reply to the unemployment which represents a dark shadow on the destiny of future generations and long-term unemployed people.

The European New Deal should take inspiration from Delors’ White Paper.  The projects involving the large transport network, energy and telecommunications create the necessary connections among the different countries and enhance their integration whilst, at the same time,  producing many employment opportunities.  This renewed and common economic policy should centre upon major financial and political involvement in the development of human resources, with efforts being concentrated mainly in the developing areas.  In a short space of time, western European co-operation should produce great benefits which could be used collectively for the general benefit and facilitate the full integration of those Central and Eastern European countries which are entering into the collaboration.

Ivano Barberini
President of Lega Cooperative e Mutue, Italy