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Confcooperative: a different way of doing business. Pofferi: “We strongly support the EU”

We spoke with the Head of the Brussels Office of Confcooperative, which represents 20,000 Italian companies connected to a close-knit continental network. “Our contribution to European integration”. Among the matters addressed: social economy, taxation and the leading role of agriculture and agri-food. The need and ability to remain in global markets. “Renew the EU, but from within” Co-operatives are one of the pillars of the European economy and are present in various productive sectors, from agriculture to the service industry, from banking to manufacture

Le cooperative sono una delle colonne dell'economia europea, presenti in numerosi settori produttivi, dall'agricoltura ai servizi, dalle banche al manifatturiero

(Brussels) – “The presence of Confcooperative in Brussels dates back to the 1970s, with the awareness that European-level decision-making was of central importance. The progressive transfer of powers through the various treaties has only served to reinforce the trend”, says Leonardo Pofferi, Head of the Brussels Office of Confcooperative, explaining to Sir the meaning and the characteristics of this presence, which aims to “accompany and make its contribution to European integration”, representing 20,000 Italian companies in the most disparate sectors, and which “seeks to convey a message: economic pluralism, and an emphasis on business models that differ from traditional ventures”. Therefore, Confcooperative’s Brussels presence is also “a necessity” shared with other Italian co-op organizations (AGCI and Legacoop, incorporated in the Italian Co-operative Alliance), and with co-operative movements from other countries.

In your view, what steps forward has Italy taken in the current European legislature which is about to end?

The first one is in the area of taxation: one of Italy’s assets is a tax legislation that is applied horizontally to co-operatives, with certain differentiations among the various sectors. In the past, the European Commission had opened semi-infringement procedures on this legislation, which ended up – also through a Court of Justice ruling – legitimizing these specific regulations. Alas, these important rulings notwithstanding, we routinely find ourselves having to defend our achievements in the Commission’s proposals. In the agri-food industry, where cooperation is leads the market in several supply-chains (fruit and veg, wine, milk, and cheeses with designation of origin), as well as protecting important budget items for agricultural policy, we note with satisfaction the understanding of the need to reward aggregated forms. Recently, we seem to have managed to convey the message that associated enterprises (cooperatives in Italy) are worthy of attention. Regarding banking, after the 2008 crisis and the great number of regulations that have befallen on the European banking system, our action has been to request proportionality of measures: the systemic risk of a multinational corporation is much greater than that of a cooperative credit bank. We have had to battle it out, and we obtained considerable consideration from the European Parliament, which helped us to correct some regulations. We now want this proportionality to become part of all of the Commission’s legislative proposals in the necessary completion of the banking union project. Lastly, I would like to mention cooperative ventures in the field of renewables: it is of great importance in the alpine areas. A package of momentous reforms in the energy market is being finalized in this legislature, and the result which is important in our view is that the European Commission has identified “energetic communities” as one of the most valid instruments, although they must be deployed at national application stage.

Agriculture has always received much from the EU, yet there is a strong sovereign push in that sector. How do you explain this?

These aspects are emerging particularly with regard to international trade agreements that Europe is drawing-up and negotiating with other areas of the world, while the broader context of common agricultural policy or PAC, although it is in a gradual “savings-mode”, is still one of the most important entries in the EU budget. What is making headlines are the consequences of potential international trade agreements, in which the agricultural chapter is often of primary importance. We have always tried to be pragmatic: our companies need to be able to place their products in emerging markets, because the numbers show that consumption in Italy is stagnating or in decline. Therefore, we agree with an open approach to these markets, while we remain aware that in any negotiation a compromise must be reached, and there are circumstances in which agriculture risks becoming a bargaining chip. Accordingly, fighting fairly to prevent the indiscriminate arrival of products at more competitive prices that go to the detriment of compliance with working conditions or food safety is the right thing to do. Regarding the customs issue we believe that due to their high quality, Italian agricultural products have great potential in European markets. There are risks to this, but it is a challenge that the Italian agri-food industry is in a good position to accept. The case of the agreement with Canada is a striking example: we believe it is a good deal – although not a perfect one – because it has defended the vast majority of products with designation of origin, which are the ones with the greatest chances in the market, although not all of them possess the commercial strength to compete in some markets.

What is the outlook in Europe for the model of social economy represented by cooperatives?

Cooperation is the most important section of social economy and it is experiencing massive growth in Europe with very respectable numbers, so it cannot be neglected. We have tried to claim a need for rebalancing relative to the EU’s great regard for the chapter of finance to the detriment of the social economy. We are seeing a small change of direction that needs to be strengthened. With the “pillar of social rights” the Commission has finally chosen to begin giving proper attention to this area, that is connected to the theme of social economy. Hence we are more optimistic about the future, recognizing that the European Parliament has stood alongside us on this matter.

What are the priorities for the next legislature?

The first one is to never forget the need to work together to defend the needs of the Country-system; we expect the next Parliament to be more fragmented, so the necessity of a policy of alliances and cohesion will be greater than ever. Secondly, the composition of new Parliament will define the financial guidelines for 2021-2027. We hope that the Council will turn out to be a little more receptive towards the European Parliament’s position which has asked to increase the Commission’s budgetary proposals, so that the budget can be as ambitious as possible in economic terms, in an attempt to safeguard those items where Italy can benefit mostly, (agriculture and the policy of cohesion), while at the same time recognising the need to support other fields such as R&D and innovation. Another challenge will be to put in place regulations that can be more easily applied at the national level: we sometimes find it difficult to apply or take full advantage of the financial opportunities that exist.

Will the members of Confcooperative vote in the next European elections?

Our message is not only a European message but one of sensitivity and awareness. By now,  growing disaffection with politics and Europe is a problem. Italy has always recorded a higher rate of Europeanism than other countries, and the fact that it is now clearly decreasing worries us. Europe is far from perfect, but it is only by working from the inside with strength, dedication, patience, and finding compromises that we can attempt to improve it.

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