Cooperatives are jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprises rooted in the values of self-help, self-responsibility, equality, equity, democracy, and solidarity. People, not profit, are at the center of a cooperative's economic activity. All members participate actively and equally in making decisions and setting policy. Cooperatives are indivisible; accumulated capital is primarily reinvested into the cooperative. Cooperatives can often provide their members with more favorable working conditions and access to goods and services than found in the free market. Deeply embedded in the local reality, cooperatives also make significant contributions to the local economy.
The first cooperatives were founded in mid-19th century Europe to provide better living and working conditions to industrial workers. In 1844, the first 'modern' cooperative was founded by textile workers in Rochdale, England. Soon after, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen and Hermann Schulze-Delizsch founded the first credit cooperatives in Germany. The Italian and Austrian cooperative system also developed during this period.
In Italy, the cooperative movement grew considerably in the first decades of the 20th century years. In 1910 there were 7,400 cooperatives with over one million members. While the rise of Fascism in the 1920s slowed down the growth of cooperatives, it picked up in the post-war period, and cooperatives contributed significantly to the country's modernization. Since the 1970s the number of cooperatives has been increasing with a rate of about 40% per decade. Today, cooperatives contribute about 8% of the GDP. About half of Italian cooperatives are located in Southern Italy. The main spheres of action for Italian cooperatives are construction, transport, business services, social services and health care. Social cooperatives, which must serve the general interests of the community, were legally recognized in 1991. Most Italian cooperatives are members of one of the following two federations: Lega Nazionale delle Cooperative e Mutue and the Confederazione Cooperative Italiane.
In Austria, the first cooperative was founded in 1851 (Aushilfskassenvereins in Klagenfurt). Between 1890 and 1914 the number of cooperatives increased tenfold to about 19,000; 3,000 of which were located on the territory of the contemporary Austrian state. Today, the majority of Austrian cooperatives – about 1,600 of 2,000 – is part of the Raiffeisen consortium. Other important cooperative groups are the Österreichischer Genossenschaftsverband (Schulze-Delitzsch), the Konsumverband, the Revisionsverband der Österreichischen Konsumgenossenschaften and the Österreichischer Verband gemeinnütziger Bauvereinigungen-Revisionsverband. Cooperatives are mainly active in agriculture, banking, housing, and consumption, but new cooperatives are also created in the fields of renewable energy and local supply networks.
In recent years, interest in cooperativism has grown considerably also at the international level. For instance, the United Nations declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives. This development is likely linked to the economic crisis, which has rendered alternative economic models more attractive. According to economist Dietmar Rößl, cooperatives may indeed be more resilient to crises and bankruptcy than other enterprises.
The European Cooperative Society
The European Cooperative Society was established in 2003 by the Council Regulation Nr 2157/2001. It aims to facilitate cross-border and transnational activity by removing legal obstacles, and, thus, to improve the competitiveness of cooperatives. The regulation came into force in 2006, when member states had to adapt national law to the European directive. In 2013, 23 European Cooperatives were registered, four of which in Italy (Fondo Salute SCE, Cooperazione Euromediterranea SCE, Nova SCE, and AgriSocialCoop SCE). So far, there are no European Cooperatives in Austria.
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