Strasbourg social enterprise conference: what did we learn?

Strasbourg social enterprise conference: what did we learn?
The Guardian, By Dai Powell

Dai Powell debates the success of last week’s event hosted by the European Commission, and what it means for the sector.

2,000 delegates, four senior politicians, three commissioners, one and a half days of debate, 10 workshops and one declaration. This was the reason for last week’s Strasbourg social enterprise conference.

The full support of the EU would be very positive for sections of the social enterprise sector in the UK. Public procurement is one huge example, with the rules made by the EU applying across the whole community. Europe is also a new frontier for social enterprise – opportunities for long term financing, the possibilities for both cross border working and some UK social enterprises expanding into Europe – made the idea of a pan-European conference exciting and relevant.

However, as so often with conferences, it is a difficult act to pull off. How do you ensure that the real voices are heard, as well as allowing space for politicians and bureaucrats to have their moments?

I felt that Strasbourg pulled this off better than most. The stories of the social entrepreneurs from across the continent were inspiring and informative – how challenges had been overcome, how progress was made and how, with the power of commitment, things can succeed. Most of these conversations were in the workshops, in the exhibition areas and in the evenings. Away from the main platform, the workshops were more in line with what is and should happen, more interactive and much more interesting.

The main conference with "high-level" people (their phrase not mine) talking to an audience which in the majority were non-social entrepreneurs, about the role and importance of the sector was somewhat less interesting, although I recognise also very important.

Politicians trying to catch up with where the people of Europe are already going is in itself amusing. It felt like a bandwagon effect. Who invented social enterprise? Which government is more supportive? Who is leading the agenda, and so on. Although within that there was some serious discussion and points being made, and as a sector it is better to be talked about than ignored.

The political stance on show at the conference was moving away from neo-liberalism towards the social market – or that was the rhetoric. Although somehow the agenda of social enterprise was tied to the EU crisis; it was as if social enterprise did not exist before 2008 and was invented purely to fix the economic crisis in Europe.

What I find fascinating about a conference like this is the inverse nature of production. While national governments are increasingly being seen by the people as no longer the agents for change in society, as people themselves are both demanding and doing more, we have the EU trying to support and influence on a vast macro scale. The conference felt like a microcosm of this.

Social entrepreneurs do need public policy, finance and the environment to enable them to create social change. Within this there I believe there is a strong role for the EU, but first and foremost let it not do anything that hinders the sector.

We do need an ecosystem for the social sector that is pan-European. There is a divide between east and west Europe on the infrastructure and role of social sector organisations, which would benefit from being addressed on a pan-EU level. Financing can and should be supported at an EU level, as should the interaction between social sector organisations and their supporting bodies.

From what I heard at Strasbourg the "high-level" people seem to understand this and seem to be on the same page. However, we have elections in a matter of months and how are we going to ensure that the progress is not lost? That will be one for the bureaucrats.

Was it worth it? In short, yes. Events like this are always difficult to gauge. Has progress been made? Are social enterprises going to be better off as a result of the even? Yet where policy goes opportunity follows – so if this event has nudged policy in the right direction, which I feel it has, then it will be seen as a station on the journey to a longer-term role for social enterprise.

We got also our declaration. The EU will support the growth of the sector, help create the ecosystem for sector growth, offer financial support and encourage member states and local authorities to take an active role in this agenda.

Will it work? I hope so. But one thing I am certain of is that the social entrepreneurs across Europe will strive for social change and fairness with or without the support from governments.

If the EU or any government wants to support the sector it will drive change faster, but the people, if they are like some of the people I met in Strasbourg, will lead this change.