At the launch of the social business initiative on the November 18, the European commission made a remarkably strong political commitment to social enterprise. In the words of its president, José Manual Barroso:

The commission’s guiding objective is to create the right environment for social businesses in all their diversity of legal forms and status across our member states. To foster their growth and development across Europe. To untap some of the massive potential that they represent for Europe’s future prosperity.

During the high-level event over 1,100 delegates and a live webcast audience heard commissioners, ministers from Poland, UK, Denmark and Tunisia, MEPs and senior commission officials giving their support to social enterprise. Social businesses now have the possibility of being included in many future policies and programmes.

Commitments were made to unblock some of the barriers created by EU procurement rules and state aid regulations. Already nearly €100m has been allocated for social investment, and there is the possibility of very considerable further funding from 2014 across a range of programmes such as the structural funds.

This political commitment has opened up a relatively short window of opportunity. The question that strikes me right now is: what is going happen over the next few months to ensure that the new polices and programmes coming out of the commission will actually work?

Over the last 20 years I have seen many programmes come and go in the UK and countries as diverse as Spain and Finland. I have been involved in some brilliant high-impact European projects, but I have also seen European taxpayers’ money wasted. Opportunities have been lost and expensive white elephants created that look good on paper but don’t work in practice.

We should make sure this opportunity is now fully taken, and that in an era of scarce public resources, new measures are targeted at things that will be successful. The new initiative must make a difference to the thousands of social entrepreneurs on the ground in Europe who need access to finance, appropriate support and the possibility to enter and trade successfully in public service markets.

The commissioners Michel Barnier (DG Markt) and László Andor (DG Employment) both talked about creating an ecosystem to support social enterprise. I share their vision and think this is vitally important. However, I believe there is still very limited understanding of what this really means in practice. The task of the next year is to be clear about how this ecosystem will work at European level, and also nationally, regionally and locally in different member states.

As a minimum, this ecosystem will require:

  • Promoting a deeper understanding of the social enterprise concept in a mixed and more resilient European economy; one that encourages plurality of business forms.
  • Building and sharing knowledge of successful social enterprise business models.
  • Addressing market failures in the supply of finance by linking funds, financial instruments and tailored support to create a viable deal flow from sustainable social enterprises.
  • Making more public support possible for social businesses through reform of state aid and procurement rules.
  • Developing appropriate ways of measuring impact.

This is no small task. To be successful it requires co-operation between the commission, member states and the emerging social enterprise movement itself. Building the system should draw on experience from where social enterprise has been promoted well and badly in the past. Proper analysis and reflection should guide the new policies and programmes.

Those with experience across the EU, and beyond, should mobilise to pool their knowledge to support the commission and their partners in national and local government and make this ecosystem a reality.

The clock is ticking. Let’s get to it!

Source: Jonathan Jenkins, Guardian Professional

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