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Regions take an interest in the social economy 15 September 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in EU, social economy, Social enterprise.
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The SEDEC commission of the EU Committee of Regions has published a report I cowrote with Haris Martinos for METIS earlier this year. It’s great to see that local and regional authorities (LRAs) are looking on more detail at how they can support the social economy.


Entitled The impact of social economy at the local and regional level, the 50-page report first of all clarifies in some detail what the difference between the social economy and social enterprise is. While many social economy organisations are not businesses, and some social enterprises are not democratic, there are plenty that are both. These are ‘social economy enterprises’, and are shown at the intersection between CMAFs and social enterprises in this diagram:

Fewer than half of EU countries have a firm legal definition of the social economy

One factor that holds back the growth of social economy enterprises is an inadequate legal framework. This is largely a national responsibility, although in countries like Spain the regions can also legislate for themselves in this area. The study draws on the 2020 EU mapping study prepared by EE and Euricse and its country reports to clarify where the best legal frameworks in Europe are.

It finds that only 12 countries have created broad legal frameworks for the social economy as a whole, of which 6 (BE, FR, EL, ES, IT and PT) are systematic, and a further 6 (or since Brexit now 5) have ad hoc systems, patchworks of laws which nevertheless permit the social economy to flourish (these are DK, FI, PL, SI, SK and UK).
A larger number of countries, 18, have legally binding legal definitions of social enterprise. While 13 of these (BE, BG, DK, FR, EL, ES, IT, LV, PT, RO, SI, SK, UK) allow for all types of social enterprise, 5 (CZ, FI, HR, LT, PL) have only defined work integration social enterprises (WISEs). This is understandable given that inclusive employment is so important, but it a missed opportunity.

Social economy enterprises in countries such as DE, NL and SE might flourish much better if the legal systems were updated.

The best support strategies work through partnership

“LRAs can play a decisive role in scaling up the social economy in their territory, and this can be done in a number of ways, the report says. It set out the best sort of support regions and localities can give, stressing that the best strategies to establish a supportive ecosystem are firmly based on partnership with the sector’s federal organisations. The ecosystem needs to include not only political acknowledgement but access to markets, support for business development, mutual support networks, access to finance, and research, education & skills development.

A score of examples of successful support mechanisms cover issues such as strategies and pacts, social services of general interest, socially responsible public procurement, start-up grants, incubators and social economy schools.
The 12 countries where local and regional authorities have the best track record in supporting social enterprises are AT, BE, CZ, DE, FR, ES, IE, IT, LU, NL, PT and SE. Let us hope that regions and localities throughout Europe pick up this baton and run with it.

Download the report at: https://cor.europa.eu/en/engage/studies/Documents/Impact-of-social-economy.pdf

Narrow-gauge steam – an accidental legacy of East Germany 20 August 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in rail.
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Lok 99 783 at Binz

During our recent tour of northern Germany, the trams were disappointingly humdrum, but the narrow-gauge steam trains were entrancing. I love these chunky little Neubaulokomotive, the Deutsche Reichsbahn class 99, which are the mainstay of the narrow-gauge railways in Saxony and the Baltic island of Rügen (750 mm), the nearby Mollibahn (900 mm), and above all in the Harz (1 m). They were built in the 1950s by Lokomotivbau Karl Marx in Babelsberg to replace engines taken to Russia as war reparations. The DDR never got around to scrapping them, and since the Wende they have come into their own as tourist attractions.

These engines are perfectly proportioned, and sweet in the way that we find children sweet because they have proportionately larger heads than adults. Shiny back, with an impressive row of domes along the top of the boiler, and with red wheels, they sit there calmly hissing and emitting the gentlest of plumes of steam, until the driver is ready to set off. He (sic) vents dribbles of water out of various pipes, and then the couplings tension and the mass of metal glides smoothly away. The drivers have no sense of being performers for tourists, but tend to look rather grim and businesslike – the ticket inspectors are generally cheery though.

And so many wheels! They are 2-10-2s, and it wasn’t until later that I asked myself how, having 5 parallel axles, they go round the tight bends that narrow-gauge railways are designed for. The answer is that the central wheels have no flanges. Secondly, the leading drive axles are mounted on Beugniot levers, which give them about a foot of lateral play. Thirdly, the bogies front and back are also there to guide the driving wheels round the bends.

Rauchender Nichtraucher – at Mägdesprung on the Selketalbahn in the Harz

I love that you can stand on the platform at the end of the carriage, and even open and close the tubular steel gates, which lift up and slot vertically into the railing. Indeed you can even ride on in open-topped truck.
It has to be confessed that steam is dirty though, and the occasional plume of dense black smoke makes the ‘No smoking’ signs look ridiculous.

Weird buffet

On Rügen, we bought Kombitickets for the round trip from Göhren to Lauterbach Mole and back by boat to Baabe (€17-50 per head). Truus got perilously close to being run over as the engine was about to run round. The relative lack of passengers meant no queue and the chance to stand on the platforms and take photos – so thanks, COVID! We headed for the buffet car, but it was a weird experience. The man running it was slow and bad-tempered – I have no idea why as he certainly wasn’t overworked. It was like McDonald’s in that he refused to help us, just pointed us to the menu on the ceiling, which was too small and far away to read, and demanded to know exactly what sort of coffees and cheese sandwiches we wanted. Perhaps it was that we chose a table stacked with used crockery, which he removed grudgingly. Also the carriage was decorated with weird clutter. It’s as if it’s his private domain and guests have to play by his rules and obey his whims.

Arcane practices

I was fascinated by the practices involved in operating a steam railway.

Gauges diverge, Putbus

Dual-gauge trains: At Putbus on Rügen there is a ramp for loading narrow-gauge wagons onto standard-gauge transporters. The narrow-gauge steam train pulls in, and a blue diesel attaches itself to the back. It proceeds to Lauterbach and the diesel pulls it back. The track to Lauterbach is dual-gauge so the mainline trains can use it too. By the station is that marvellous thing, a Mitfahrbank with its green sign to facilitate hitch-hiking.

Drivers-of-all-work: At Alexisbad in the Harz we had to change to the railbus to Harzgerode, which was waiting at the stub platform pointing north. The train from Gernrode stopped on the central track. We hurried to change trains as we’d again arrived late, and were two of only a handful of people so to do. The driver pulled out of the station, got out to change the points, moved past them onto the eastern through track, got out again to reset and lock the points, and only then could we set off. I was astounded that (a) he has to do this manual work himself, and (b) that he can’t just park on the 2nd through track (but it has no platform).


IMG_2396 standard-gauge tanker on metre-gauge Rollwagen atop the Brocken

Standard-gauge tanker on metre-gauge Rollwagen atop the Brocken, with coupling rod

The Harz railways still carry goods, and so face the problem of how to transfer them to mainline trains. If you’re carrying minerals, you can just build a pair of parallel sidings with the narrow-gauge one raised above the standard-gauge one, and tip the material from one train into another. This is what they did with the slate at Minffordd on the Ffestiniog.

A second solution is the Rollwagen, a chassis onto which a wagon of a different gauge (wider or narrower) can be rolled. But these are heavy, so the Swiss invented the Rollbock (transporter bogie) to piggyback standard-gauge wagons on narrow-gauge tracks. These are a little 4-wheeled trucks which can support one axle. They wait in a pit (Rollbockgrube) between the standard-gauge rails, and in the Langbein system each was positioned below an axle and a fork was folded up by hand to cradle the axle. The combination was then towed on a chain by a loco on a parallel track to be coupled to the narrow-gauge train. You could jack up an entire train in this way. Narrow-gauge Rollwagen are coupled using 2-m long poles, but when using Rollböcke, it is the superposed wagons that are coupled together. Some Rollböcke are braked, while in other cases brake wagons are interposed every few wagons. A coupling converter truck travels at each end. Aufbocken was dirty work, because the Rollböcke had to be manhandled into the pits, and cattle would piss on you.

The Vevey system automates this, using asymmetrical fixed forks with the higher tine facing forward, and HSB uses it to carry limestone from the Unterberg quarry to a siding off Hesseröderstraße in Nordhausen. Diesels haul trains of a dozen blue Railpro hoppers, sat on top of natty pink Rollböcke linked by a looping rubber brake hose. A video (minute 20) shows unloading at Nordhausen: the loco simply pushes the wagons up a foot-high ramp and the Rollböcke roll away into their pit with tuneful tinging and clanging. A shunter then hauls the hoppers away.

Invisible in literature – are co-operatives boring? 21 June 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in cooperative, Social enterprise.
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Co-operatives are undoubtedly a good thing, and they are quite simple in principle, so why is it that they figure so rarely in works of fiction? It may be because they are so peaceable, uncontroversial and scandal-free. When I worked for the UK’s federation of worker co-operatives, ICOM (the Industrial Common Ownership Movement) in the 1980s it was a commonplace that co-operative law was so simple because co-ops rarely went to court. There was precious little case law because co-ops rarely litigated. That explained why company law was long-winded while co-op legislation was short and sweet. Even today, people sometimes find a business based on sharing more “complicated” than one based on exploitation. Maybe they think it’s just too good to be true.

Successful yet boring

In 2018 the Health Bank made the same point:
The new World Cooperative Monitor 2018 has been published and shows the ranking of the 300 largest cooperatives in the world. The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and the European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprises (Euricse) have published the seventh annual World Cooperative Monitor. That is 2,575 companies from 8 sectors of activity, of which 1,157 generated sales of more than USD 100 million. The top 300 cooperatives and insurers report a total turnover of over two billion USD. US dollars. The response to the study in the media? Almost zero. Unless one is involved in a scandal, cooperatives are the unloved stepchildren of the media and are ignored. Wrongly so. Because cooperatives are a success story.

Quite. Work done co-operatively, by harnessing intrinsic motivation, is so much more enjoyable!

Yet it seems sadly to be true that authors find little to inspire them in co-operatives. I’ve recently been reading Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy and was happy to find he mentions their role in working-class life during the First World War in its first volume, Fall of Giants:

‘Where’s our mam?’
‘Gone down the Co-op for a tin of jam.’ The local grocery was a co-operative store, sharing profits among its customers. Such shops were popular in South Wales, although no one knew how to pronounce Co-op, variations ranging from ‘cop’ to ‘quorp’.

Apart from this, references are mainly humorous. In Murder in the Collective, Barbara Wilson sets a murder mystery among radical printing collectives in Seattle, and Frances Madeson’s 2007 comic novel Cooperative Village is set in the eponymous housing co-op in New York.

Surely this can’t be the whole story?

Follett, K. Fall of Giants, 2010, Pan Books, London, ISBN 978-0-330-53544-1, p. 487
Madeson, F. Cooperative Village, 2007, Carol MRP Co, ISBN 9780979277207
Wilson, B. Murder in the Collective, 1984, Seal Press, Seattle. ISBN 9781878067234

Co-design webinar for the Social Economy Action Plan 2 June 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy.
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On 2nd June 2020, over 400 people met online to co-design the European Action Plan for the Social Economy, at a webinar organised by the European Parliament’s Social Economy Intergroup and chaired by Victor Meseguer of Social Economy Europe. They heard Commissioner Nicolas Schmit call for the European economy to be reshaped.

Green MEP Sven Giegold expressed the Intergroup’s disappointment with the lack of progress made under the last Commission mandate, and called not for symbolic actions, but real changes to budgets and regulations. He set out some important concerns:
• Help for worker buyouts, on the model of the Italian Marcora Law
• Support for fair trade, which is not a threat to fair completion but the basis of it
• Social procurement
• Equal treatment for social economy legal forms and private firms
• Usable statistics from Eurostat
• Statutes for the European association, mutual and foundation – currently, to receive donations charities have to set up a foundation in each different Member State

Perhaps no European legal status

Commissioner Nicolas Schmit found himself in the happy position of being no longer a member of the Intergroup, but its principal interlocutor. He promised that the ESF will continue to support the social economy, including a tool to enable transnational projects. He agreed that the social economy needs European recognition, but “perhaps not a legal status”. Pointing out the funds available through EU-Invest and the Recovery and Resilience Facility, he said we should “use the crisis to reshape the economic system”.

Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s Minister for Labour and Social Economy, outlined Spain’s Social Economy Strategy, which is to be renewed for 2021-27 and implemented in partnership with CEPES. She is also the chair of the Monitoring Group of Luxembourg Declaration on Social Economy, which brings together 16 EU Member States. In the second half of 2020 the European capital of the social economy will be Toledo, and the policy focus will be on social and economic development, social innovation, sustainability, depopulated areas, Latin America, satellite accounts and response to the pandemic.

Heather Roy from Eurodiaconia noted that social economy enterprises need support now, if they are to survive long enough to help recovery from the crisis.

A series of other speakers from regional and local authorities, sectoral and financial bodies and the European Parliament also contributed.

Zooming can be fun, as well as more democratic 9 May 2020

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I’ve just taken part in AEIDL’s first online AGM, and I have to say it worked very well. We used Zoom, of course, with the added polling feature. As far as I can see, surprisingly it made the meeting more, not less democratic.

First, it made our democracy more accessible: people attended who normally cannot, and we had 24 of our 31 members there. This is probably a result of it being so much quicker (2 hours) and cheaper, as there are no travelling and no travelling expenses.

Secondly, the discussion was more organised: there was very little interruption – most members muted themselves by default, and you can ‘put your hand up’ on the screen if you want to speak. At the same time the chat feature allows you to comment in real time when the oral debate continues. During our AGM, 4 big ideas cropped up, which Luca harvested and reported back on at the end. In this way, I think it actually increased interactivity, by allowing us to intervene more often, but without having to interrupt the current speaker. In a physical meeting, you have to postpone your comment, and by that time the moment has often passed. In future we could use breakout rooms, to allow small groups to discuss an issue in parallel.

Quick votes

We found the polling feature worked very well when we had to vote: it was more-or-less instantaneous as well as being transparent (though anonymous), with the result clearly displayed as a percentage bar-graph of yesses, nos and abstentions.

On the negative side, you undoubtedly lose the excitement of having a day out of the office, foreign travel, meeting people socially, eating together, and serendipitous learning and ideas.

And our success relied on meticulous preparation (thanks Jean). Even with the agenda and slides on the shared screen, participants have to take care to download and study the necessary documents beforehand.


When the ESF Transnational Platform (RIP) started up, both we and the Commission expected online meeting to be popular. But this never happened, with fewer than 10% of Thematic Network meetings taking this format. In retrospect this was a great shame, as it could have increased the breadth of participation and learning. If it’s any help, we published a guide setting out some guidelines and handy formats for meetings and webinars.

For me, the whole experience went so well that I am minded to propose that we hold virtual general meetings more frequently.

The coronavirus and its aftermath 28 April 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in Amsterdam, social economy, Social enterprise.
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I’ve been wondering when and how anyone will take the lead in formulating local development/social economy proposals for a better post-coronavirus world. Here’s a start.

Personally, as a seasoned home worker, predominant introvert, in receipt of a pension and with neither children nor parents to care for, I have been affected remarkable little by the coronavirus crisis and consequent lockdown measures. Marooned in Amsterdam, I’m free to read books, listen to the BBC’s In Our Time archive and binge-watch TV detective series. We can go for walks and bike rides, and have seen the family a couple of times (keeping a 1½-metre distance). There are no grocery shortages, just stripes on the shop floor and perspex screens at the tills. We have to forgo cinemas, pubs and our weekly expedition to the Balti House. Yesterday’s Koningsdag was humorously converted into Woningsdag or Balkoningsdag.

But for the moment the local neighbourhood co-op has suspended activities apart from its phone helpline. It will celebrate Liberation Day through online stories.

What are the likely medium-term consequences of the crisis? How are local development precepts important?

When it all blows over, I think we can expect a number of social-economic changes to persist:
• More home working (hot-desking, non-renewal of office leases)
• Staggered school and working hours
• A swing towards online commerce
• Animated films will replace live ones
• An aversion from crowded public transport. As more commuting by car is not an option, cycling will rise (woonerven)
• More concern for food security (blocked international supply chains, shortage of migrant farm labour)
• A desire for more food self-sufficiency (fear of transmission from intensively famed livestock; Ecolise)
• A swing to responsible and cultural tourism (dearer flights)
• More support for degrowth, but on the margins
• Fewer hugs and bises?

Organisationally we risk less informed debate and less democratic accountability. Annual general meetings and parliaments meeting online cannot exercise the same level of scrutiny on managers and governments. Investigative journalism is needed more than ever, but newspaper sales and advertising revenue have slumped even further.
Politically I think we shall see stronger support for solidarity-based public services, above all health services. Along with this a recognition of the essential worker status of many disrespected and underpaid professions, from nurses to bus drivers and street cleaners, and an upward re-evaluation of the value of immigrants, who ensure public services and food supply (MAX).

But I doubt that we will see a fundamental change in power relationships. Just as with the financial crisis of 2007-08 this current period of Keynesian expansion will rapidly be replaced by a return to austerity. Already it is benefiting billionaires disproportionately (Amazon, Netflix).

It’s the perfect time to move to a universal basic income (UBI), which would not only reduce poverty but open up scope for myriad local voluntary initiatives. Some of these might be developed into community enterprises – for instance in urban horticulture or bike couriering. Platform co-ops will come into their own to support and connect microenterprises. AEIDL needs to find and promote the best ways of supporting transnational distance networking (ESF-TP).

Employment Commissioner Nicolas Schmit has just written to EU member states recommending increased support for the social economy, so the political cog wheels are starting to turn.

Cheesy social enterprise 26 April 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in Social enterprise.
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Who knew that Primula processed cheese is made by a social enterprise? Its factory in Gateshead was featured in the BBC’s fascinating series ”Inside the Factory”. It is a subsidiary of the Norwegian Kavli Group, whose profit goes to the Kavli Foundation (Kavlifondet). In 2018 group turnover was NOK 3.5bn, and the foundation received NOK 100m (€8m) in dividend and distributed NOK 131m (€11.4m) to research, culture and humanitarian causes. Kavli UK employs 241 people and includes Primula, Castle Castle MacLellan pâté (Kircudbright) and St Helen’s Farm goat milk (York).
It is not to be confused with the similarly-named Californian Kavli Foundation.

The Commission’s 2019 mapping study identifies only 295 social enterprises in Norway, 11% of which are foundations, but admits that this is a minimum and that there may be more under the radar. This is clearly one of them!

Council definition of social enterprise – an asset-stripper’s charter? 23 March 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in Social enterprise.
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I notice that the European Council has brought into being yet another practical definition of ‘social enterprise’ – all the while of course refusing to do so officially.

This one appears in the mandate it gave to the Commission to negotiate ESF+ with the Parliament. It reads as follows:

2.1(15) ‘social enterprise’ means an undertaking, regardless of its legal form, or a natural person which
(a) in accordance with its Articles of Association, Statutes or with any other legal document that may result in liability under the rules of the Member State where it is located, has as its primary social objective the achievement of measurable, positive social impacts rather than generating profit for other purposes, and which provides services or goods that generate a social return, and/or employs methods of production of goods or services that embodies social objectives;
(b) uses its profits first and foremost to achieve its primary social objective, and has predefined procedures and rules covering any distribution of profits that ensure that such distribution does not undermine the primary social objective;
(c) is managed in an entrepreneurial, accountable and transparent way, in particular by involving workers, customers and stakeholders impacted by its business activities;

This makes two new interpretations:

– firstly that a social enterprise can be a natural person (i.e. an individual rather than a group)
– secondly that it replaces the presumption that any profit distributed must be less than half of any profit made with the constraint that it does not “undermine” the social mission.

This seems to have difficulties:
– how can a natural person – i.e. a sole trader – have a “legal document” with a social objective?
– how can one verify that a profit distribuion undermines the social objective? Probably this could only be said to have happened when the enterprise fails – in which case it is too late.

So the Council seems to have learnt nothing about profit and asset locks and removed any protection against asset-stripping of social enterprises.

Reference: ESF+ Regulation – Partial mandate for negotiations with the European Parliament – COM(2018) 382 final – doc. 9573/18. https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-8211-2019-INIT/en/pdf

Social innovation is political 17 February 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy, Social enterprise, social innovation.
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At the DIESIS strategy day on 11 February, I chaired the world café tables on social innovation, and wanted to go beyond the standard discourse.
The social innovation project is a worthy attempt to transfer the glamour traditionally attached to technical innovation to the social policy field. And the transfer of innovative methods is what gives the EU the competence to intervene. But what underlies it?
The usual definition is phrased in rather technical terms:
• social innovations are new (in their context) social practices that aim to meet social needs in a better way than existing solutions. They are innovative in method as well as results – i.e. they create new relationships;
• They tend to be hybrids of existing elements, rather than completely new, and to cut across organisational or disciplinary boundaries;
• They can be launched by anyone – government, research institutions, companies, professionals, NGOs, the social economy…
• Their crucial feature is that they let new actors in. They empower and strengthen civil society, and therefore increase the effectiveness of change.
Some examples are open universities, social co-operatives, microcredit, fair trade, Wikipedia, community planning and architecture, carbon trading and socially responsible public procurement.
But it’s also important to remember that there are also what might be termed ‘antisocial innovations’ such as the privatisation of public housing: this certainly changes social relations and empowers tenants – but it correspondingly disempowers the homeless who will never get a council house.
Therefore we should remember that social innovation is essentially political – it aims to make everyone winners, but it may also have losers. This is especially the case for so-called ‘disruptive’ social innovations. Disruption sounds grand, but Uber’s gamble that it can dismantle public transport and replace it with its own monopoly is scarcely a progressive step.

Social enterprises are how we sustain social innovation

A second political angle is the suspicion that social innovation is a cloak for public service cuts, a way for governments to shuck off their responsibilities and force citizens to solve social problems themselves. I don’t really buy this – people have a natural desire to improve their societies, and public policy should give them ways to do this. The crucial role of the social economy is that it is the only way of making social innovations economically sustainable. If they don’t have a ‘business model’ then they will forever be controlled from the top down. Social enterprises are the vehicles through which citizens can directly control their living and working environments.

Thirdly, we should avoid digital capture. Not all social innovation is digital. One can certainly use digital methods to bring people closer to power – see the example of Simba’s Comme à la Maison (CALM), which links up migrants with offers of accommodation. By the essential point is power, not technology.

Finally, the pot of gold at the end of the social innovation rainbow is ‘transformative’ social innovation, which not only introduces new approaches to seemingly intractable (‘wicked‘) problems, but also changes the social institutions that created the problem in the first place. It’s slow and requires capacity for multiple partnerships and engaging policy, legal and economic institutions.

Comment now to influence the EU’s Social Economy Action Plan 17 February 2020

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy, Social enterprise.
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At a strategy day held by DIESIS on 11 February, Risto Raivio of DG Employment set out the state of play with the EU’s Social Economy Action Plan, which was added at the last minute to Commissioner Nicolas Schmit’s mission letter last December.

The SEAP will be cocreation with stakeholders according to the following timetable:
• 2020: evidence (GECES meets April & September)
• 2021 1st half: drafting
• 2021 2nd half: launch

As it currently stands, the plan’s content will be structured as follows:

Social economy & social enterprises:
• civic engagement
• local communities
• labour market integration
• social investment
• local green deals
• social innovation – innovative solutions in: education, healthcare, energy transition, housing, social service delivery

It will fit into the policy framework including the 14 Jan 20 communication on just transitions, the Green Deal, the SME and industry strategies, the skills agenda etc. The study on the impact of the Social Business Initiative will be published in Oct 20 in time to feed into the SEAP.

There is an opportunity to input your views NOW, since there may not be a separate consultation on the SEAP. You can take part in the consultation on further implementation of the Pillar of Social Rights before 30 Nov 20 at https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1487.

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