Toby Johnson
31 January 2014

SEN has its say in Strasbourg

Paweł Chorąży speaking in structural fund workshop

SEN made a useful contribution to the Commission’s major social enterprise conference in Strasbourg in January 2014, contributing to the Structural Funds workshop and hosting two open space discussions.

The Social Entrepreneurs – Have Your Say event in Strasbourg on 16–17 January marks the end of the first phase of the European Commission’s Social Business Initiative. Coming towards the end of the current five-year Commission mandate, its purpose was to set the agenda for the next Commission, which will be appointed towards the end of 2014.

It was a step into the unknown for the Commission, as it combined the conventional top-down policy debate with a participative methodology to get people talking to each other and thinking up new ideas. To this end, the central ‘spine’ of speeches and round table debates was surrounded by a host of more unusual styles of forum.

People could post their ideas and requests on post-it notes at the ‘networking hub’, and propose discussions on any topic they liked in the open space session. There were thematic workshops, a World Café, ‘hold-up’ sessions, the obligatory Twitter wall and a ‘night owl’ evening. Site visits to social enterprises on both sides of the Rhine were laid on, and the entire proceedings were captured in a giant cartoon to give us the ‘Big Picture’.

The event succeeded in bringing together the great diversity of the social enterprise world – though some absences, such as the German co-operative movement. It had the intended impact.

About 1,700 people from 70 countries attended, and the same again watched the webcast. The three Commissioners responsible for the SBI – Barnier, Andor and Tajani – gave a convincing display of unanimity. They emphasised their ‘horizontal’ collaboration, and presented a united view of social enterprise as part of the solution to the crisis Europe finds itself in. The problem, they said, is with Europe’s business model, not its social model. We need to get back to the ‘social market economy’ that is set out in the EU Treaty.

President Barroso, contributing by video, stressed that the growth of social enterprises was not a passport to government disengagement from welfare provision. Perhaps with an eye to his own candidacy for that post, Michel Barnier emphasised that commissioners are not bureaucrats but politicians with convictions – and stated his conviction that there can be no sustainable growth without social cohesion.

The trio certainly gave the impression that if they had anything to do with it, Commission support for social enterprise would continue. However Barnier sounded a tiny note of caution: “There is no consensus in Brussels” he said. Evidently the case still needs to be argued.

SEN contributions

SEN, as the key network building capacity for social enterprise support, was active in two areas, taking part in a workshop on ESF and hosting two tables in open space discussion.

Paweł Chorąży (PL), who is after all in charge of the world’s largest ESF programme, spoke in the workshop on the Structural Funds, which attracted some 200 people. He explained the partnership principle on which the network is built, its peer review methodology, and the five topics it is addressing. Chorąży also had to field some tricky questions on payment delays, sources of infrastructure funding, and the Competition DG’s questioning of support for NGOs that have more than 250 employees (and are therefore not SMEs).

Jan Olsson of the EESC followed up by stressing the benefit for public authorities of making partnerships with the social economy, and gave the example of Spain, which has delegated the management of an operational programme to ONCE, an NGO. He urged anyone who wants to use the Structural Funds to support social enterprise to act now – “It’s 10 to 12!” he said. The Partnership Agreements between the Commission and the Member States are due to be adopted by June, followed by the operational programmes.

SEN also hosted two tables in the free-format ‘open space’ discussions – on the subjects of social franchising and finance.

The table on “Why is it so difficult to set up public-private funds to support social enterprises?” focussed on Local Impact Funds, which are being piloted in Liverpool prior to being rolled out across England. Chris Dadson from the Social Investment Business and Val Jones from Social Enterprise North West explained how the €24m scheme is structured to combine ESF grants for ‘investment readiness’ support with loans funded from ERDF and private sources. The ERDF‘s intervention is crucial, as it enables the fund to survive the losses that will inevitably occur. SIB is piloting a second such fund in Northampton.

SEN materials and information were available on the DIESIS exhibition stand.

Open space finance discussion

Strasbourg Declaration

The event culminated with the proclamation of the Strasbourg Declaration, which had been painstakingly put together by a team led by Jonathan Bland of Social Business International, drawing on the ideas ‘harvested’ from the many discussions that took place in various formats.

It has 10 headline recommendations backed up by a three-page list of detailed ideas.

Of course the ideas are very fertile. One of them is that “… in the programmes for structural funds, capacity-building programmes should be provided to Member State authorities” This is of course exactly what SEN is doing – and more of it needs to be done.

The key recommendation is that: The European Economic and Social Committee, the next European Commission (with a dedicated inter-service structure) and the next European Parliament must take full ownership and deliver on the actions suggested in Strasbourg.”

The key phrase here is “with a dedicated inter-service structure”. This is because it is not the ideas that are lacking, it is that their implementation so often falls between two stools, or falls short because managers prioritise other areas. It is already an achievement that three DGs of the Commission are working together on the SBI, but there is the risk that in the hiatus between this Commission and the next, momentum will be lost and never picked up again.

Hence the crucial role of the EESC in the bridging period. EU support for social enterprises requires a cross-departmental organisation that can chase progress across the different DGs involved.

You can sign the declaration at: http://ec.europa.eu/eusurvey/runner/strasbourg-declaration?surveylanguage=en

Toby Johnson