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EU Social Economy Gateway

A note on social economy data

In this section, you can find background information on the data quality of the two most relevant sources for comparative data on the social economy in Europe. It is essential to understand the limitations of the available data and the reasons why data from different sources may not align perfectly.

Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe:
Comparative synthesis report (2020)

European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, Carini, C., Borzaga, C., Chiomento, al., Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe – Comparative synthesis report, Publications Office, 2020

The mapping of social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe is currently the most accurate and comprehensive source concerning social enterprises and their operating environment in Europe, in line with the definition used in the EaSI programme. It covers 28 EU Member States (as per 31 January 2020) and 7 non-EU EaSI participating countries. The European-level synthesis report pulls together the key comparative findings and the country reports provide detailed country-specific data.

Approach to data

The national researchers have combined the data based on available national official statistics, applicable registers, data from networks and other sources. However, the availability and reliability of the data varies from country to country, which also affects the researchers’ ability to utilise it effectively.

As a result, the synthesis report indicates the level of data reliability per country and presents the national data in a way that enables comparisons, whenever possible. However, it does not provided aggregated figures at the EU level. For comments on the reliability of the data in all 35 countries, see pages 106-107 of the report. 

Approach to analyses

While the mapping is a descriptive exercise, it takes a great deal of expertise to analyse and interpret the national data in its societal context and to present it in the way that is easily understandable for readers without prior knowledge about the country. The synthesis report draws from the national analyses and presents interesting EU-level typologies, regrouping countries from different perspectives and thereby allowing to make sense of the diversity in Europe.

Expertise mobilised

The coordination team and the advisory board included several leading academics in the field, and the country researchers had prior involvement in social enterprise-related research. The consortium (EURICSE and EMES) mobilised substantial expertise. However, variations in the quality of the country reports exist, primarily due to limited data availability.

Key data

Estimated number and size of social enterprises:

EU top 5 in terms of biggest number of social enterprises:
IT 102 500, FR 96 600, DE 77 500, UK 30 700, PL 24 500

EU top 5 in terms of number of social enterprises per 1 million inhabitants:
IT 1690, HU 1620, LUX 1550, BE 1530, FR 1400,

EU bottom 5 in terms of smallest number of social enterprises:
MT 30 -60, EE 120, CY 190, LU 200, DK 411

EU bottom 5 in terms of smallest number of social enterprises per 1 million inhabitants:
CY 22, DK 71, EE 92, GR 107, HR 128

Recent Evolutions of the Social Economy in the European Union (2016)

European Economic and Social Committee, Monzon, J. L., Chaves, R., Recent evolutions of the Social Economy in the European Union, 2017.

The study "Recent Evolutions of the Social Economy in the European Union", published by the Economic and Social Committee, is considered the most reliable source for data on the overall social economy in Europe. This study has been conducted since 2008, with updates in 2012 and 2016, providing EU-level aggregate figures on the social economy. It offers valuable insights into the number of entities, employment figures, and to some extent, the economic significance of the social economy.

The 2016 study also draws a broad picture of the different concepts related to the social economy, recent developments, and relevant public policies, including EU actions. The study presents EU-level figures that are frequently referenced and are aggregated based on country fiches.

According to the study, the European social economy:

  • provides over 13.6 million paid jobs in the EU
  • employs about 6.3% of the working population in the EU-28
  • has of a workforce of over 19.1 million, including paid and non-paid workers
  • benefits from more than 82.8 million volunteers, equivalent to 5.5 million full time workers
  • encompasses more than 232 million members associated with cooperatives, mutuals and similar entities
  • comprises over 2.8 million entities and enterprises

The country figures show a significant national variation. For instance, the proportion of paid jobs in the social economy sector ranges from 0.5% of all jobs in Lithuania to nearly 10% in the Netherlands.

It is essential to note that these figures were established using a broad definition of the social economy, encompassing voluntary associations that may not be explicitly "economic" in terms of selling products or services. This broad definition significantly impacts the figures, with over 9 million of the 13.6 million jobs attributed to associations and foundations, primarily due to the large number of associations included.

The study was conducted by CIRIEC, with Rafael Chaves and José Luis Monzón serving as the main authors.

Explanatory remark

The differences between the results of the two reports can be explained by a few elements.

The EESC study provides figures that encompass the entire social economy, although there may be some ambiguity regarding the inclusion of all associations as part of the social economy. On the other hand, the mapping report focuses specifically on social enterprises as conceptualised within the Social Business Initiative, which employs three criteria for defining a social enterprise: continuous economic activity, primacy of social goals, and participatory governance.

The difference in numbers arises primarily from the application of the first two criteria:

  • Only a portion of associations and foundations meet the criterion of economic activity
  • Only a portion of cooperatives, foundations, and mutuals meet the criterion of primacy of the social objective.

This difference is evident in the figures provided for Italy. The EESC report identifies approximately 350 000 social economy entities in Italy, from which 290 000 associations or foundations, 60 000 cooperatives and 1000 mutuals. From this same ecosystem, the mapping report of Italy identifies as social enterprises 15 770 social cooperatives (26 % of all cooperatives), 2567 foundations (35 % of all foundations) and 83 500 associations ( 28 % of all associations) and 1693 formally recognised social enterprises with a variety of legal forms.

Although they may not be representative, the patterns observed in Italy are consistent with those found in other countries:

  • Associations are overwhelmingly the biggest part of the social economy, and of social enterprises, even if only a relatively small part of associations qualify as social enterprises, the economic activity being the mail “eliminating” criterion.
  • Only a subset of cooperatives and foundations meet the criteria for being considered social enterprises, with the eliminating criteria varying based on the social goal for cooperatives and both the social goal and economic activity for foundations.

New Commission study to improve social economy data

The European Commission is currently running a new study to improve the available data on social economy in Europe. The results are expected in 2024. Once available, the data will be added to the Social Economy Gateway.