What happened in Strasbourg?


Social Enterprise UK's Dan Gregory and Peter Holbrook travelled to Strasbourg last week for Social Entrepreneurs: Have Your Say! Dan gives a quick run down of the event.

A refreshing mix of policymakers, senior politicians, frontline social enterprises, academics and public sector representatives, including commissioners arrived from across Europe to reflect on progress and next steps in developing a more social economy. While Francois Hollande had to cancel, with other things on his mind, Michel Barnier, the next potential EU president played a significant role in making the conference happen and in participating - an encouraging sign that social enterprise and social entrepreneurship's a priority for the continent's big decision makers.

The UK's social enterprise sector was well represented, with the likes of Fusion 21, Social AdVentures, the British Council, Welsh Co-ops and a number of others speaking and learning from the diverse mix of policy and practice on show. 

Throughout the first day a number of familiar themes were addressed, with sometimes challenging perspectives for the UK from our European neighbours and further afield. We learned that some of the difficulties we face in the social investment market here in the UK are shared by our European counterparts - a speaker from Germany, for instance, highlighted the number of funds and yet the shortage of money reaching the frontlines. The European Commission's interest in social impact bonds and social stock exchanges - regardless of their practical usefulness for social enterprises and the limited EU powers in these areas - at least demonstrated how enthusiasm for more social investment models is also growing inside the institutions of the EU.

One session on procurement was overflowing. New EU laws passed last week - and explored in Social Enterprise UK's Out of the Shadows report last year - offer an important opportunity to loosen the stranglehold a small number of large firms have on public services. It gives those responsible for awarding contracts the freedom to take into account the social and environmental value created by providers and even reserve some contracts for social enterprises. The new legislation could be hugely significant, but is only slowly starting to be noticed by politicians and practitioners across EU member states. State aid reforms are also underway and some other new rules also emerging last week may free up the ability of national governments and others, such as Big Society Capital, to support access to finance for social enterprise.

The second day was built around the emergence of the "Strasbourg Declaration". This was a rather grand occasion and to a degree a little heavy on process and next steps for the incoming new EU commissioners. But the content was great and included a range of ideas which social enterprises in the UK and across the continent can firmly get behind. As ever, the test of the usefulness of all these new rules, grand speeches and ambitions is in the translation from policy to practice. That will be down to us, to national and local politicians and to the efforts of social enterprises across the continent.

Sign the Strasbourg Declaration

To sign the Strasbourg Declaration, to see the potential of social enterprise realised across Europe, visit http://ec.europa.eu/internal_market/conferences/2014/0116-social-entrepreneurs/index_en.htm