Social enterprise, social entrepreneurship and social business have been pushed to the forefront of
the social and economic stage, in the hope that they will provide solutions to the crisis that has been
tearing Europe apart since 2008. This is, moreover, a global trend. These ’solutions’ are increasingly
being discussed as a potential substitute for the third sector, the third system, the non-profit sector,
in the fight against exclusion and poverty. The social economy, in the form of statutory organisations,
cooperatives, mutual societies and associations, has received varying degrees of recognition in the
past. What are the reasons for these trends?
Economic commentators now regard these ‘hybrid models’ as essential factors for sustainable
development. This trend is reflected in different ways in the different EU Member States, depending
on the cultural, social and political context: utopian socialism, ‘labour movement’, ‘social
Catholicism’, philanthropy, ‘gift economy’, the role of civil society, etc.
Throughout history, the role of social economy has above all been to integrate social considerations
into political and economic life. While joint stock companies have been the backbone of Europe’s
business economy since the second half of the 19th century, a number of major crises have led to the
development of social economy clusters1 many of which have survived, albeit in a minor capacity.
During the 1990s, the European Commission granted some legitimacy to social economy
organisations, because they provide both market and non-market services. Has it taken advantage of
their specific legal characteristics to further its economic objectives? Has the legislative and
regulatory framework furthered their social objectives? Why is there so much interest in social
entrepreneurship, which the Commission2 refers to as “social business”?
How have our understandings of the social economy changed over the last 20 years?
Over this period, a growing literature on the economics and sociology of the social economy and
social enterprises has been published, particularly by ISTR, EMES, CIRIEC, etc. At the same time,
analyses of European legislation have focused essentially on ‘services of general interest’ – notably
the social services – which are frequently managed by the social economy.
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