by Nick Matthews, Chair, Co-operatives UK
In the next few weeks the British people will make a fundamental decision about the country’s future. Are we in or out of the European Union?
Like the UK population, the business community is divided. Some are in favour of leaving the EU on grounds that other trading relationships will flourish. Some want to remain in membership to maintain stability and benefit from the EU’s markets and regulation.
Co-operatives are also divided on this issue. As the Chair of Co-operatives UK, the network for Britain’s thousands of co-operatives, I know this as well as anyone. There is no single ‘co-op angle’ to the question of EU membership.
As with any group of businesses, co-ops will have positive or negative experiences of the EU depending on the sectors they trade in, the nature of their supply chains, and who their members are. Some co-operatives have chosen to speak out; many have opted for neutrality. There are 7,000 co-ops that are independent enterprises and will naturally take different positions.
Co-operatives UK has sought to understand the views of its membership and had significant discussions at board level. We prepared a high level analysis of the impact the EU has on the co-operative sector in the UK which we shared with our members before asking their views.
The response to our poll indicates that members favour the UK remaining a member of the EU and the majority want Co-operatives UK to speak out on the issue.
That said, this was a limited sample and the informal feedback we received was that many co-operatives, including our largest member, the Co-op Group, will not themselves take a formal position. The prominent exception is in farming. With a turnover of £6 billion a year and over 600 co-operatives, farming constitutes the second largest part of the co-operative sector. James Graham, the Chief Executive of the Scottish farming co-op body, SAOS, wrote in the Co-operative News earlier this year “it is rare to speak to anyone in the industry here who advocates leaving.”
Co-operatives UK is a voice for the sector, from farming to fair trade, but what we say is not, and never has been, binding on our members - the choice on how to vote is theirs alone.
We work with individual co-operatives every day, ensuring we meet their needs. Sometimes, though, an issue goes beyond the needs of individual members and the direction taken is determined by the co-operative values which are the lifeblood of our movement.
It is within this broad context that Co-operatives UK, led by its elected Board of Directors, is standing up for remaining in the EU.
There are practical reasons for staying in the EU of course. A vote to stay means continuity for co-operative businesses. And, although little EU law relates to co-operatives specifically, farmer support is well established and many of the worker and consumer rights championed by the sector.
More than anything, and the reason why we believe in remaining in the EU, is that internationalism has been at the heart of the co-operative movement since its origins 150 years ago. The purpose of the Rochdale Pioneers was not, after all, to open a shop in the north of England. It was to create a fairer economy for themselves and others like them. Their vision was for a ‘co-operative commonwealth’ that spanned nations and borders.
Co-operatives UK is an active member of the global body for co-ops, the International Co-operative Alliance, and its European arm, Cooperatives Europe. Co-operation might have its origins in the UK, but as in football, we can still learn from our European cousins – from France, Italy or Spain. Without shared support, learning and participation across Europe, the co-operative sector would be weaker.
And we are starting to see more co-ops crossing the borders of Europe. With the patient introduction in recent years of the European co-operative statute, this is likely to keep on growing.
In 1971, when initial entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) was a decision for the British government, and four years later, the subject of a referendum, Co-operatives UK – then the Co-operative Union – called a “special Congress” for a “vigorous debate” to “determine the co-operative movement’s attitude to Britain’s entry into the EEC.”
The upcoming referendum, 41years later, has sparked another vigorous debate about the country’s future. The UK co-operative sector has always been about more than just business and, indeed, about more than just the UK - that’s why Co-operatives UK is voicing its support for remaining in the EU.
This article first appeared in the Co-operative News.