The beauty of the Co-operative solution is that it can be applied to so many different problems. Co-operatives have been tried and tested in every area from farming to finance. Not only have they worked, but they have worked better than their competitors operating on the profit motive.
But for the same reason, here in Brussels, they can sometimes overlooked. Since so many different issues have a co-operative angle, there is no single directorate in the European Commission, nor a single Committee in Parliament, which has responsibility for co-operative solutions.
That is a shame, because across Europe there are rich cooperative traditions, which we could learn a lot from both in Brussels and at home. One region often cited is Emilia-Romagna, in Italy, where there are famously over 8,000 co-operatives supported by specific local legislation. Over half of the population of the region are members of a co-operative. The Emilia-Romagna co-operative movement includes a well developed network of social care co-ops – something we should pay close attention to as these become more widespread in the UK.
But these are by no means the only examples we can learn from. There are flourishing co-operative movements across Europe we can draw from. Some of these are much closer to home: Scotland and Ireland, for example, are home to particularly strong credit union movements – in the West of Scotland, up to 1 in 5 people are members of a credit union, whilst in Ireland 70% of people are members. And of course, the UK is home to the world’s biggest co-op, the Co-operative Group.
In my own East Midlands constituency, the Co-operative movement is also strong, and I have been able to work with Co-operative stores in my area on issues such as fair trade and food labelling.
Now more than ever, we need to pool all of this knowledge and experience of co-ops across Europe, to find new ways back to sustainable growth. Co-ops place people before profit, so they inherently promote fair, inclusive growth and a responsible business model – and following the financial and economic crisis, this is exactly what Europe needs.
In retail, for example, co-operative food stores promoted honest labelling long before its competitors, giving priority to the welfare of its customers over the profit motive. I have been working for a long time to improve the information available to consumers on the food they buy, such as nutrition labelling or country-of-origin labelling. On issues like these, the Co-operative movement has always led the way.
In finance, the building society and credit union movements began by providing services to low-income communities. They have kept this ethos, serving customers which few commercial banks are willing to cater for. They are also run more securely and sustainably, keeping people’s money safe where commercial banks have failed.
The European Commission’s plan for growth – the ‘Europe 2020′ strategy – recognises the need for a “social economy,” but doesn’t recognise the special role that co-operatives must play in bringing that about. As Emilia-Romagna shows us, specific support for the Co-operative movement in the legal and tax systems can go a long way, and it is vital that we recognise this at European level.
Over the next few years, I will be working with the Co-operative Party and Co-operatives Europe to help bring this about. Europe’s rich co-operative traditions are one of its greatest assets, and we now need to use them to bring about a fair and sustainable economic recovery.