At the start of Co-operatives Week in Brussels, Rodrigo Gouveia, Secretary General of Euro Coop, explains to Co-operatives UK why co-operatives are resilient during times of crisis and how they can help rebuild the European economy.
Q: Co-operatives are a way of doing business, but why do they seem to be more resilient than conventional businesses?
I believe that co-operatives are more resilient to crisis basically because of their nature, because they are rooted in their communities, they dare to serve the people that use their services and therefore, even in times of crisis, people look at the co-operative as their organisation, their enterprise.
It is just the link with the community, the link with the territory, that makes co-operatives more resilient, in the sense that people still have to shop, people still have to go somewhere for the groceries, for example, and they see the co-operative as a stable business. Of course, the fact that they do not seek to maximise profit is also another reason why they are more resilient to crisis, because you don’t have the shareholder pressure always trying to get as much profit as they can.
Q: The European Parliament has recently acknowledged co-operatives are vital to deliver the EU’s 2020 strategy. What should be the role of co-operatives within that strategy?
Co-operatives have a very important role to play to reach the goals of the EU2020 strategy; first of all, in terms of greener growth, which is one of the topics of that strategy. Consumer co-operatives and co-operatives in general are a sustainable kind of enterprises, not only in the way they do business but as a model of enterprise itself, and, as a result, they can help to achieve this greener part of the strategy.
Also in terms of employment, in terms of providing jobs, but not any kind of jobs: safe jobs, stable jobs. They are a tool that should be better used and better promoted even by public authorities because they achieve goals that other types of enterprises do not.
Q: But, in general, have co-operatives the opportunities they deserve to develop and grow in Europe. Are co-operatives treated equally than traditional businesses then in terms of policies, regulations and support?
Co-operatives have always advocated for a level playing field against other types of enterprises, so co-operatives do not seek particular advantages. However, it is true that, when doing legislation in many member states at a European Union level, sometimes policy makers do not understand the characteristic of co-operatives and therefore they make legislation or they have policies that do not help co-operatives and that, in some cases, even discriminate them.
So what we ask for to policy makers is that in every policy they should take into account that there is not only one type of enterprise, that there is not only one model of doing business, that there is another one which is a clear alternative and its specificities have to be respected, and there has to be a level playing field to allow co-operatives to compete at the same level as other kind of enterprises.
Q: There is still a lot to do to grow the co-operative economy in Europe. You have talked several times about the need to promote co-operation amongst co-operatives from different countries. What does it mean?
I think that the co-operation amongst co-operatives at an international level is a great opportunity but it is also a big challenge.
There are examples of such co-operation in the retail sector. For example, Intercoop, that gathers consumer co-operatives from Italy, Spain and the Northern countries, or Co-op Euro, that gathers co-operatives from the Slovak Republic, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary. But I think we have to be more ambitious.
It is a big challenge because co-operatives are rooted in the community. They are very local and growing to a national level of co-operation it is already a big challenge, but when you go a step further to the International level, it is even a bigger one.
However, it is also a great opportunity because, in retail for example, if we put our resources together, we could be one of the largest retail forces in Europe – the second one with a turnover of €80 billion–, and we could really drive the market, instead of just trying to catch up with it. And therefore there has to be some work on this issue to try to see exactly what the opportunities are and the best tools to do this.
Euro Coop, the European Community of Consumer Co-operatives, represents over 3,200 local and regional co-operatives, the members of which amount to over 29 million consumers throughout seventeen European countries.
Created in 1957, Euro Coop promotes the interests of consumer co-operatives and their consumer-members. Its main areas of work are food retail and safety, sustainability and consumer rights at European level.