Portuguese Presidency puts Social Economy at the heart of the EU’s agenda to create jobs & implement the Pillar Social Rights

Portuguese Council Conference on the Social Economy

The High-Level Conference of the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU entitled “The role of the Social Economy in job creation and in the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights” was held on Monday May 29 in Sintra, in a hybrid format (both face-to-face and online).

Videos of interpretation in EU languages (EN, ES, PT, DE, FR and IT) can  be found here.

Full Video of the Conference

The event was organized by the Portuguese Presidency of the EU, the Portuguese Ministry of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security and the CASES cooperative (a public-private agency for the promotion of the Social Economy, which is the Portuguese member of SEE) and brought together key stakeholders for the development of the Social Economy in Europe and at global level. These include the European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit; the Minister of Labour and Social Economy of Spain, Yolanda Díaz; the Minister of Labour of Portugal, Ana Mendes Godinho the Secretary General of the OECD, Angel Gurría; the Secretary of State of Slovenia Mateja Ribič, and the President of Social Economy Europe, CEPES and UCOMUR, Juan Antonio Pedreño, among many others.


29.03. Portuguese council conference

The first speaker at the conference was Basilio Horta, Mayor of Sintra who stated that in Sintra, the social economy is a highly valued sector. He explained that the social economy and the sector in general, contribute to the process of relaunching and convergence of the EU economies, especially in the long-term sustainable growth and challenges at the social and territorial level. He explained that in Sintra, there are 1,207 social economy organizations that represent 2% of the national total.

Ana Mendes Godhino, Minister of Labour, Solidarity and Social Security of Portugal explained that this is a year of challenges. She reminded the audience that in addition to the Presidency of the Council of the EU, this year they also hold the Presidency of the Monitoring Committee of the Luxembourg Declaration, affirming their national and European commitment to promote the social economy as a decisive factor of progress in economic and social terms for everybody. She said that we must fight to tackle vulnerability and job insecurity, to promote inclusion in society and the fight against inequalities. She continued that in Portugal, the social economy employs 6.4% of the people, improving the skills of employees through training, although it may have a much greater weight. She concluded by saying that the pandemic has shown the capacity for the social economy to be a job creator in a time of crisis.

European capital of the Social Economy in 2021

The conference proceeded to introduce the European capital of the Social Economy in 2021. This year is special in that the Presidency has assigned a Portuguese network of cities that will hold the European capital of the Social Economy in 2021. These include: Braga, Cascais, Coimbra, Sintra and Torres Vedras. The Mayors of the five cities signed a charter of common engagements for the network of cities and gave a short intervention. These five cities demonstrate phenomenal recognition of the social economy and have a strong presence of social economy organisations working for inclusion, protection of the vulnerable and promotion of social entrepreneurship and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Eduardo Graça, President of CASES which supports the creation of this network of cities that have been chosen as the European capital of the social economy. He explained that local governments are a fundamental pillar for the strengthening and recognition of the social economy. The macroeconomic indicator of the weight of employment generated by the social economy is very relevant (which is 6.1%) as it is one of the most important sectors for job creation in Portugal. He added that promotion of equality and quality of life should be encouraged, in favour of social cohesion.

Commissioner Nicolas Schmit recalled that in the fourth quarter of 2021 the European Commission will present an ambitious European Action Plan for the Social Economy, currently under public consultation online to which all actors of the Social Economy are called to respond. Commissioner Schmit explained that this Action Plan will serve to increase the visibility of the Social Economy and promote entrepreneurship through these legal forms, such as cooperatives, in the whole of Europe and including a wider international element also in neighboring countries to the east and south of the EU.

Likewise, he pointed out the need to build ecosystems favorable to the development of the social economy, to improve access to finance and European funds and to accompany the growth and internationalization of these companies and entities. In addition, he focused on the digital transition as a great opportunity to promote innovation in social economy companies through practices such as platform cooperatives or new technologies. He explained that these are allies in the field of education and other social services of general interest giving the example of the care economy.

European Action Plan for the Social Economy

After Nicolas Schmit came an introduction and explanation of the results of an important publication on the impact of the Social Business Initiative from Manuela Geleng, Responsible of the European Commission (DG EMPL) for the coordination of the Action Plan for the Social Economy and Director for Skills at DG EMPL. 

This section of the conference was entitled: Construction of the European Action Plan for the Social Economy

Ms. Geleng explained that the concept of social economy, in recent years has reached more and more people among the Member States and that social economy enterprises are increasingly considered to be more important actors, also in the areas of cohesion, innovation, development and the environment. She continued that access to finance has changed the whole picture and that in the last 7 years, European funding through the European Social Fund has been really important. She said that it is necessary to highlight as a positive change the general approach that has been taken to support the ecosystem as a whole, and not as separate individual elements.

Ms. Geleng noted that there is still little knowledge and awareness of the specificities of companies and organizations in the social economy, this can negatively impact on both the design of policies and financing. She added that there was a need for a more coherent framework of concepts for the actors in the Member States and also at the local and regional level.

She concluded that in recent months there have been more than 20 initiatives by the commission with reference to the potential of the social economy.

She gave several policy options which came out of the SBI study. These are the following:

    • Enhancing the awareness of the Social Economy: 
      • Promote consistent use of concepts and definitions
      • Strengthen coherence between EU policy initiatives for the social economy and other EU instruments
    • Opening up opportunities
      • Enhance access to finance
      • Enhance Access to Markets
      • Communicate and disseminate opportunities and challenges of digitization
    • Creating the right framework conditions
      • Stimulate capacity building, education and training to support the upscaling of the social economy
      • Start a dialogue on social impact measurement and management
      • Tackle the needs of specific territories

Victor Meseguer, Director of Social Economy Europe, offered his remarks on what was said by Ms. Geleng and added Social Economy Europe´s key proposals for the Social Economy Action Plan, stating that SEE has consistently asked for a European Action Plan since 2014.

He continued that in 2018, political proposal for the social economy were developed. Soon after, the Action Plan was confirmed in a mission letter to Nicolas Schmit (Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights) to be released in Autumn of 2021; therefore, Social Economy Europe have released a new policy paper building upon the 2018 document and in collaboration with SEE´s 17 members and 4 external partners . This new policy paper proposes 7 priority areas for European intervention. These are:

SEE priorities 2021 Action Plan

Mr. Meseguer explained the seven priorities in detail, and you can find the full policy paper here. Alternatively, you can find a video of each priority explained here.

1) Mr. Meseguer highlighted several features of these priorities including on the definition of the social economy  that must be based upon the values that confere a unique indetity to all social economy enterprises and organisations. For example prioritizing people over capital, the democratic governance and the re-investment of most of the profits.  The many legal forms (which can include associations, mutuals, cooperatives, work integration social enterprises and more) must be included in the definition, which is centered on values.


2) Regarding the visibility of the social economy, there have been great improvements and Mr. Meseguer mentioned the good example of satellite accounts in Portugal for measuring social economy statistics and that it should serve as a basis for creating satellite accounts in other member states. He continued to describe the need for a single gateway, in the form of an online platform where all the EU opportunities for the social economy (InvestEU, Pact for Skills, EU Cluster collaboration platform, training, education, studies) can be found. Additionally, will also need a communication campaign. We need more social economy entrepreneurship i, and this can be most attractive to European youth. We have to support them, we have to let them know that the social economy can be a collective tool to solve their collective challenges. Following the example of Portugal, Mr. Meseguer considers that the European Commission could internalize the process of the European capitals of the social economy and social innovation, to be appointed on a yearly basis. 

3) Regarding access to finance, he explained that Invest EU will be key, with four policy windows (4 types of investment policies), all accessible for the social economy with one in particular on social investments and skills mentions social economy as a priority. In the framework of sustainable finance discussions, Mr. Meseguer pointed out that -a social taxonomy is needed and will enable responsible finance  based on a true measure of how they act in terms of; social considerations, quality of employment, contracts, gender equality, environmental impact, how the company distributes and re-invests profits.

4) He continued on access to markets, stating that we need the opportunity to have a transnational social economy, meaning we must find the legal ways to allow the cooperation between people of different countries to create social economy projects under the cooperative, mutual, associative or philantropic forms. 

5) At the Global level, Mr. Meseguer mentioned that the EU already has an important cooperation with the OECD,  that should be expanded to other international organisations as the Union for the Mediterranean to promote social economy in the Southern, Eastern neighbourhood and in Africa. Additionally, we should promote the social economy in the G20 .  

6)Mr. Meseguer concluded with the fact that the social economy should be included in the social dialogue. With 13,6 million people, 2.8 million enterprises and, around 10% of GDP, we should explore how to include these actors in the national cross sectorial social dialogue, the national sectorial social dialogue, as well as at EU level.

7) He finished by insisting that we need a medium or long term (5 or 6 years) horizon to implement this action plan. There should be a consistent EU Policy approach to support the social economy and ensure its added value is maximized.

Keynote Speech

The Keynote speech was given by Giuseppe Guerini, President of CECOP and EESC member, who chair the EESC Social Economy Category. 

Mr. Guerini explained that the Action Plan for the EU Pillar of Social Rights is part of the green and digital transition, and that social economy organisations are ready to participate in this. He added that further recognition is imperative of how social economy organisations are both socially responsible and innovative, citing an example from Italian law.

He explained how companies in the social economy are particularly innovative. He explained that the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) have carried out 15 opinions that are relevant to the social economy, defining this as a system that puts social objectives before the role of capital, and that promotes the protagonism and participation of people and local communities, thanks to a democratic governance capable of ensuring the participation of all. Thus, the social economy is the creation of a shared and participatory value to return it to the community because value created by these organisations is re-invested. He added that that this particularly important in the creation of jobs.

He added that the social economy must be recognized with the prominence it deserves, this being more than 8% of European GDP. More than 13 million people work in these organizations and around 3% of the EU work in a cooperative, where more than 50% are women.

The social economy is capable of creating jobs and promoting links to territories, providing essential services of health and education, often involving the beneficiaries themselves. There should be public investment in this, in the form of public procurement and the social economy needs to participate in this.

He highlighted worker buyouts to save jobs and companies and included the ideas of tax treatment for reinvested money. Mr. Guerini concluded by giving examples of the social advantages, and help to the most vulnerable of the social economy whilst protecting workers rights and security, reiterating the benefits of worker buyouts in this case. He finished by stating that the social economy underpins EU democracy and that we must focus on the human side and work becomes less and less humanize. “We must re-humanise work through participation.”

Roundtable Discussion

The event then moved to the  Roundtable on “The role of Social Economy in the creation of jobs and in the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights”which was moderated by Álvaro Garrido, Director of FEUC and expert on Social Economy where he asked several important questions to panellists.

Angel Gurría, Secretary General of the OECD, was asked what role the social economy can play in balancing the communities with the environment and natural resources?

Mr. Gurría explained that the OECD work with the social economy through the “LEAD” program for employment and local development. His motto is to support the better policy for a better life, everything they do follows the same motto. A people centered approach is mainstreamed in all their work. 

The OECD has a very important wellbeing framework that measures what really matters to people, beyond GDP. They support companies develop a similar wellness framework so that they can measure their own impact. This is key for more inclusive and sustainable business models. Mr. Gurría gave some specific examples relating to jobs and inclusive labour markets. Working conditions are improved sue to the participatory nature, it creates and maintains employment for disadvantaged groups and places and it reinforces the role of responsible business conduct, fostering constructive social dialogue. It also contributes to civic engagement, including inclusive business transitions through worker buuyouts, helping to relaunch companies suffering from the crisis. He continued that the OECD works with national and local governments and international organisations to unleash this potential. E.g. Business for inclusive growth coalition. They fight local and cross-border inequality in all supply chains.  He added that by inspiring responsible practices among key economic and social actors, it is shown that it is possible to reconcile economic objectives with environmental and social requirements, including sustainable practices that respect the primacy of human needs and natural ecosystems.

Yolanda Diaz

Yolanda Díaz, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Labour and Social Economy of Spain was asked, since Spain has a great tradition of social economy; how does she see the role that EU policies for the social economy can have in recovering from the impacts of the pandemic on youth employment and women’s work?

Ms. Díaz, valued the dynamism of the Social Economy in Spain, which represents around 10% of GDP and 12.5% ​​of employment, generating more than 2.2 million direct and indirect jobs through more than 43,000 companies and entities. The head of Labor and Social Economy pointed to the Spanish law of Social Economy, the mobilization of budgetary resources through the European Social Fund and active employment policies, cooperation with strongly cohesive representative organizations around the Spanish Confederation of Social Economy Enterprises (CEPES) and the Regional public policies for the promotion of the Social Economy, as the main factors for the success of the Spanish Social Economy. Likewise, she highlighted the added value of the Social Economy in key areas such as job creation and promotion of entrepreneurship among young people, equality between women and men, the quality of employment, 80% of the new permanent contracts being and the commitment to inclusion, since the Social Economy employs 128,000 people with disabilities or at risk of exclusion.

Juan Antonio Pedreño

Juan Antonio Pedreño, President of Social Economy Europe was asked what can be done to support the companies of the social economy, integrating them more and better in the socioeconomic policies of the states and the union? Mr. Pedreño, highlighted the commitment of the social economy to the main socio-economic objectives of the EU such as a fair and sustainable recovery, the European Pillar of Social Rights or the European Green Deal.

“We are the revolution of citizens who want affordable housing and not being at the mercy of speculation, citizens that decide to build together, reinvesting profits in their collective goals. The revolution of citizens who want to produce and consume their own clean energy and, once again, reinvest profits in social objectives at the service of the community. The revolution of collective entrepreneurship for the reindustrialization of our territories. Companies at the service of people and local communities”.


Likewise, Mr. Pedreño pointed to the collaboration of the Spanish Social Economy, represented by CEPES, with the Government of Spain to face the demographic challenge to revitalize depressed areas through education, ethical and cooperative finance, cohousing, sustainable agriculture, the inclusion of groups at risk of exclusion such as migrants, renewable energy production and digitization.

Finally, he addressed issues related to the improvement of education, stating that we have to face a paradigm shift in the educational model to face the green and digital transitions and the transition towards a more active and participatory citizenship. He added that we need more and better education for entrepreneurship, including of course entrepreneurship through forms of social economy, such as cooperatives.

He stressed that educations in social economy entrepreneurship encourages key values and skills as cooperation, democracy, inclusive leadership, and social innovation.

María Helena André, Director of ACTRAV / ILO was asked what new challenges are emerging for this post-pandemic context in relation to the future of work?

Ms. André explained that the challenges have been great obstacles, but great opportunities. Challenges remain for decent work and fair competition organizations, both at national and EU level. In 2019, on the ILO’s centenary, a historic document on the “future of work” was signed, a really important statement. It focuses on the human being and places the rights of workers and their needs at the centre of political and social policies.

This pandemic has not affected everyone equally and exacerbates previous inequalities, including for young workers, women, migrant workers and those not working in the formal economy. She focused on young workers, who are more at risk of losing their jobs or dropping out of school. Moreover that have less stability than previous generations. Ms André stressed the need of support for businesses in this exceptionally challenging time and that support will help the state continue. She explained that the ILO believes that the higher the budgets in terms of GDP, the fewer jobs are lost. A focus for funding should be on the life of companies in the long term.

She concluded that we must take into account the economic recovery; it must have alternatives and new forms of business that place people in the centre of recovery and not capital. We must base ourselves on the motives of the social and environmental economy.

Mateja Ribič, State Secretary of Labor, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities of Slovenia was asked what contributions she can highlight from the policies and reality of Slovenia in relation to the social economy?

She began by stating that she supports the work of the Commission on the social economy. She explained that during the last financial crisis, the social economy demonstrated great resilience to challenges and also opportunities to maintain jobs and strengthen social cohesion. During this crisis, employment in social economy in Slovenia has not been decreased, which has made it possible to develop sustainable business models. She emphasized the opportunities for up-skilling and re-skilling that the social economy has offered in Slovenia through social innovation. In answer to the questions, she explained that in 2011 they recognized the social entrepreneurship act. In 2017, the law was amended to include the social economy placing the concept of social entrepreneurship in a broader context. The number of registered social economy companies has been growing steadily. She explained that many of these employ people with disabilities. She added that Slovenia encourages financing through the EU structural and investment funds which have increased employment opportunities in the social economy. Additionally, Slovenia has also empowered the social economy with a legal framework to facilitate their facilitation in public procurement, with some social economy entities using properties owned by the state free of charge, facilitating their entry into the market. However, Ms. Ribič reminded the audience that social economy organizations around the world face different challenges. Many employees have minimum wages, and their working conditions vary. Slovenia therefore they welcome the Action Plan, which is an opportunity to increase the visibility of the social economy and the role in creating employment for people and employees and the more vulnerable groups of the population.

Victor Van Vuuren, Chairman of UNTFSSE was asked what are the organisational reality and challenges that are faced by the social economy in African or South American countries?

Mr. Van Vuuren began by saying that there is still a gap in policies that favour SSE ecosystems. It is important to link the good work happening in Europe to developing economies to ensure continuity and not create a bigger gap. Members of the UNTFSSE such as the ILO, OECD and UNDP are working around the world to support governments. He continues that a human centred economy represents both the present and the future. We must urgently rethink the way we are doing business in order for long term recovery.

In Africa, interest in the SSE began in the early 2000s as a response to multifaceted crises. The key of the SSE is its function as a tool for rights, better working and living conditions including the most excluding people, underpinned by a value system that we must bring back to the world of work. Partnerships are key to accelerate the achievements of SSE companies and achieve the Agenda 2030 SDGs. He mentioned key organisations in this, including Social Economy Europe, in which partnerships are key to implement new social welfare, at the core of the agenda 2030.

Mr. Van Vuuren continued that the local benefits of the SSE mean regarding health and welfare systems to aid in areas such as aging, disability, HIV, reproductive rights, post trauma care, rehabilitation and more. Mutual health insurers are improving, which helps greatly there is a tremendous (80%) informal sector. New policy tools are emerging that have the power to overcome fragmentation between policy making and ground level solutions. In Latin America, SSE has helped government authorities and traditional private sector meet the social and economic needs of the people, stating a new policy in Costa Rica as an example. He continued that cooperatives in Africa and Latin America have facilitated access to health services. He gave the take-away message that policies and programs need to be mainstreamed and that we are lagging in this. The UNTFSSE want to work together with partners in Europe to bring enabling environment to the level of developing economies. The ILO agreed last week that in 2022, one of the main debates will be on the social economy, for the first time in 100 years.

Francisco Silva, Director-General of the Portuguese Confederation of Social Economy was asked, how do you interpret the labor challenges, competition and the training of human resources that will be posed to the organizations of the social economy in the coming years?

Mr. Silva stated that it is important to join our forces and our wills in a confederation. The objectives are to be involved in the Portuguese Economic and Social Committee . Priorities also include social dialogue, improving the fiscal status of entities and the green and digital transitions. Mr. Silva explained that it has become so clear how important the social economy is at this phase of the crisis, certainly in terms of training and it needs to be an important part of the social dialogue. 

Filipe Almeida, President of Portugal Social Innovation was asked about the importance of social innovation in the current socio-economic context and what role should it play in public policies of the present and of the future?


Mr. Almeida explained how the collective activities which have a social facet for improving the quality of life, with a main goal of public service. He referred to structural challenges in the social economy, for example the social aspect and the needs of the people, also the volunteering and the bringing together of so many people. He explained that social innovation means innovating to transform society, as well as sharing inequality, promoting autonomy and strengthening social relationships.

He described the challenge of measuring impact and how much wellbeing has been produced. Once again, Mr. Almeida stressed the need to bring young people into the social economy, in order to do this raising awareness is key. In terms of management, he explained we must become more professional, a better identification of needs, we must anticipate new needs better, we must digitize to develop new solutions. Collaboration and strategic partnerships to share good practice and overcome territorial issues is extremely important. He explained that access to finding was also key. He explained that the social economy is one of the greatest opportunities for social and economic transformation of our time, because it involves the mobilization of the civil and business sectors. Social innovation is a vehicle to strengthen the social economy, its impact, its infrastructure and methods, and thus, make the sector more attractive.

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