Sostienici! Rivista-Impresa-Sociale-Logo-Mini
Fondata da CGM / Edita e realizzata da Iris Network
ISSN 2282-1694

Numero 1 / 2023


WISEs and Work Integration in European Policies

Patrizia Bussi, Pauline Bonino


This essay analyses the European Union's policies aimed at supporting WISEs. Since few European policies directly address WISEs, attention is paid to policies addressed to broader categories, such as social enterprises and the social economy, which have recently attracted the interest of European institutions. Consequently, we will focus on:

  • the (few) European documents that directly refer to WISEs or to the labour integration functions performed by WISEs;
  • European policies related to social enterprise, social economy or other similar categories, which include, together with many other actors, also WISEs;
  • aspects that directly concern WISEs.

Before proceeding with our analysis, two preliminary remarks are needed. First, the scarcity of references to WISEs corroborates the importance of lobbying to ensure that WISEs are adequately taken into consideration in the political agenda of European institutions.

Second, broader categories that comprehend WISEs - such as the social enterprise or the social economy – are not neutral. Their roots, history and political implications are discussed in depth in other issues of this journal (e.g., issue 1/2022). Nevertheless, the focus of this essay are WISEs and consequently key aspects concerning other concepts are excluded from this analysis.

Since the launching of the Social Business Initiative (SBI) in 2011, the visibility of social enterprise has raised in the European Union’s policy agenda. The SBI identified several actions to make a real difference and improve the situation on the ground for social enterprises. In addition, the European Commission recognised “work integration - training and integration of people with disabilities and unemployed people” as one of the four fields in which social enterprises operate[1]. This can be considered as an indirect reference to work integration social enterprises (WISEs).

This said, it is crucial to consider that WISEs are one social enterprise type and, in turn, are also part of the broader social economy, which includes diverse organisations. The social economy was until recently a rarely mentioned concept in EU policies and this is why it is important to firstly understand the rise of the social economy concept in EU policy documents. may promote the consideration of WISEs as actors capable of addressing one of the great socio-economic challenges for the European Union, the work integration of people excluded from the labour market.

Nevertheless, this trend is likely to shift in the coming years following the publication of the European Social Economy Action plan, which explicitly mentions WISEs as being “a common type of social enterprise across Europe which is specialised in providing work opportunities for disadvantaged people”[2]. We clearly see the willingness of the EU to foster the recognition and development of WISEs. In this article, we will go through a brief history of the WISE movement development, an analysis of the evolution of EU social and employment policies and progressive opportunities they have created for WISEs development.

The raise of the social economy

The first mention to the social economy in EU documents was the Commission’s Communication on “Businesses in the “Economie Sociale” sector : Europe’s frontier-free market” (SEC(89) 2187). In the 1990’s the social economy has been developing in various Member States, but its support was not on the EU agenda also due to the relative underdevelopment of social economy representative organisations at EU level.

A first turning point took place at the beginning of the 2000’s. In its White Paper “Social Economy… taking back the initiative”, Social Economy Europe pointed out that “Since 2000, the Commission, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions have adopted more than 200 texts highlighting the social economy’s contribution to employment, to the entrepreneurial spirit, to social inclusion, to financial services, to rural and local development or social cohesion, inter alia[3]”. This turning point can be explained by different factors, including the creation of lobbying structures, the development of an EU single market, the stronger development of the social economy in some EU Member States (Spain, France, Belgium,…).

In 2003 and 2004, several targeted initiatives on cooperatives were adopted: in 2003 the Statute for a European Cooperative Society[4], and in 2004, the Communication on the promotion of cooperative societies in Europe.

We can see the focus shifting a bit on social enterprises in 2007 when DG GROW published a study on practices and policies in the social enterprises sector in Europe, which however only mentioned in the margin work integration social enterprises.

It is the 2008 economic crisis which accelerated the recognition of the social economy at the EU level and also its role in creating quality jobs for all, disadvantaged people included. The need to face the increasing difficulties stemmed from the crisis (e.g., the rise of unemployment, and the calls to reshape the economic system taking into account social aspects) paved the way for new support initiatives. Furthermore, it should be recalled that three Commissioners - László Andor, Antonio Tajani and Michel Barnier, respectively in charge of Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, of Industry and Entrepreneurship and of Internal Market - being more aware of the role the social economy vis-à-vis the crisis, started to support it.

In 2008, the EU adopted a recommendation on the active inclusion of people excluded from the labour market, which recommended to “provide support for the social economy and sheltered employment as a vital source of entry jobs for disadvantaged people…” It was followed, in February 2009, by a Resolution on the Social economy, adopted by the European Parliament, following the Toia Report, which was a first step to but on the social economy on the EU agenda. This report pushed the Commission to encourage the recognition of the whole concept of social economy, for the legal recognition of the diverse entities of the social economy and for the creation of new policies. It underlined that social economy enterprises “promote the active social integration of vulnerable groups”. The report was supported by the EU network of social economy actors, Social Economy Europe. In 2009, the EESC also adopted an opinion on the “Diverse forms of enterprise”. It was followed, on 13 November 2010 by an Open letter to the European Commission, calling to move “From words to action: supporting cooperative and social enterprises to achieve a more inclusive, sustainable and prosperous Europe[5].

During this period, one of the biggest win for WISEs was the introduction in the 2008 General Block Exemption Regulation of a new category of disadvantaged workers, the “severely disadvantaged workers” that were unemployed for more than 24 months. This was a partial win for ENSIE as, for this category, the aid is extended, but only up to 24 months aids. This was crucial for WISEs as it acknowledged that they are doing a service of general interest and need the support of the public authorities in order to break even most of the time and to compensate the lack of productivity they faced due to the employment of disadvantaged workers.

The initiative led to the launch, in 2011, as already said at the beginning, of the Social Business Initiative (SBI) which aimed to support the development of social enterprises ; it proposed eleven priority measures organised around three themes: “Making it easier for social enterprises to obtain funding”, “Increasing the visibility of social entrepreneurship” and “Making the legal environment friendlier to social enterprises”. The SBI also contributed to the emergence of new policy fields for the European Commission: social enterprises and social innovation[6]. The SBI provided a first, at the EU level, loose definition of social enterprises based on three dimensions: the entrepreneurial dimension (stable and continuous production of goods and services), the social dimension (explicit social aim) and the governance dimension (inclusive and participatory governance model). The SBI let the door open for the adoption of more specific definitions for dedicated measures or regulations[7].

The SBI was mainly focused on social enterprises and left aside other types of social economy actors, it did not focus specifically on WISEs, but considered “work integration” as one of the four field of activities of social enterprises. It was, however, thanks to the SBI that a lot of initiatives were able to take place to develop social enterprises.

Overall, the SBI “boosted positive developments both at EU and national levels as well as among stakeholders”[8]. It translated into funding programmes with concrete measures supporting social enterprises, including work integration social enterprises at EU level, and through specific EU regulations (EuSEF) and through better recognition in relevant regulatory measures (revised 2014 public procurement directive and state aid). At national level, some countries were inspired to introduce new legislation and strategies.

The SBI led also to the creation of the Group of experts on social enterprises (GECES), which gathers representatives of the sector, public authorities, consultants and academic institutions. The GECES members are chosen periodically by the European Commission, and they meet twice yearly to make recommendations through reports. Work integration social enterprises have been represented in this group since its creation thanks to the ENSIE’s presence but also some national members representatives as arbeit+ and RISE Romania. Its focus was initially the development, set up and implementation of all the actions mentioned in the SBI. Since then, the GECES has been a crucial tool for the development of work integration social enterprises and the social economy, in general, at the EU.

The follow-up of the SBI

The SBI had consequences on the work integration social enterprises and also on the long-term development of the social economy. In fact, unfortunately, in almost all the official documents that followed the SBI there was not explicit reference to WISEs. In the 2010’s and mainly after 2015, the social economy became more and more present on the EU agenda and its specificities were taken into account in more and more various EU legislations.

In 2012, the European Parliament adopted a report on the SBI. In 2013, the EU adopted its Communication “Towards social investment for Growth and Cohesion“, which called for the support of the social economy through European Structural and Investment funds. The Council adopted in 2014, the Rome Strategy on Unlocking the Potential of the Social Economy for EU Growth during the Italian Presidency of the Council, which acknowledged the role of the social economy in the economic growth and to face the economic crisis contributing to the implementation of several key EU objectives, such as employment creation and retention. The Italian strategy called the new Commission and Parliament to develop measures and proposal to support its development.

The next year, in 2015, six member states (France, Italy, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain) adopted the Luxembourg declaration, a roadmap towards a more comprehensive ecosystem for social economy enterprises. This declaration stated the importance of developing a common understanding of the social economy (respectful of the diversity among member states) and called on the European Commission to include and recognise social economy enterprises and organisations in its Internal Market Strategy. This declaration resulted in the creation of an informal group of member states for which the promotion of the social economy at EU level is a political priority. At the same time, on 7 December 2015, were adopted Council Conclusions on “The promotion of the social economy as a key driver of economic and social development in Europe”. Those conclusions aimed to send a message to the Commission and member states so they support social economy enterprises and organisational model and to develop institutional, legal and financial ecosystem for all social economy enterprises and organisations. It also called to develop a more constructive dialogue between all levels of public authorities and stakeholders to promote and support the social economy.

It was followed by the Bratislava declaration on Social economy as a key player in providing answers to current societal challenges, adopted in 2016 and signed by Slovakia, Cyprus, Slovenia, Romania, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain, Czech Republic, France and Greece which called the Commission to go further in its support to the social economy, in particular regarding its potential for job creation and social innovations, but that the member states and the EU institutions were still not using its full potential.

In 2017, the Ljubljana declaration, adopted by EU and South and Eastern Europe countries, pushed for stronger and more structured cooperation between EU and South East Europe and the creation of network of social economy organisations at the regional level. It also stated that the EU and member states should take appropriate actions to create an ecosystem for social economy enterprises in the process of tackling the emerging challenges, employment included, concerning migrants and refugees.

Continuing these activities at the Council and member states level, in 2018, a European social economy conference took place in Madrid during which nine member states (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain) adopted the Madrid Declaration that called the European Commission to include a European action plan for the social economy in its 2018’s work programme and to strengthen the role of the social economy as a formula for the creation of inclusive employment and a fairer, more equitable and sustainable society in the European Pillar of Social Rights and in the ongoing debate on the future of Europe.

In 2018, the Bulgarian presidency of the EU Council organised a high-level event on the social economy “Social economy – for an economically sustainable and socially inclusive EU”. In 2021, the Porto declaration was adopted on May 8th, which called for an action plan for the social economy. The same year was organised the European Social Economy Summit online which conducted to the adoption of the Mannheim declaration on social economy.

This set of documents shed some light on the growing attractiveness of the social economy. On the one hand, the European Union has recognized the ability of the social economy to improve the well-being of its citizens; on the other hand, however, the contribution of the social economy to the labour integration of disadvantaged people continues to be underestimated.

Sectoral policies

In parallel to this flurry of activities at governmental level, the Commission organised itself to better take the social economy into account. Against this background it created an informal task force regrouping all interested general directorates (DGs) to coordinate policies at EU level. Indeed, since the middle of the 2010’s, the Commission acknowledged the key role of the social economy in many different policy domains in addition to employment. We will review here some of the policies that have been adopted. The EU engagement to support the social economy culminated at the end of 2019 with two big announcements: the future European action plan for social economy and the recognition of WISEs as an economic sector with the call for project Blueprint.

Legal forms

In Europe, WISEs can be cooperatives, associations, foundations as well as traditional companies. For these reasons, the creation of a unique legal form for work integration social enterprises is neither a desirable, nor a feasible goal to be pursued.

In 2021, in the framework of the Social Economy Action Plan redaction ENSIE proposed an EU Recommendation with a set of conditions that should apply to all WISEs. This way, the diversity of work integration social enterprises traditions and laws throughout the EU could be respected.

Concretely, after the publication of the Action Plan (2022), ENSIE and its members suggested including in the future Council Recommendation on developing framework conditions (June 2023) the main guidelines for “Work Integration Social Enterprises “, namely:

  1. WISEs are a specific typology social enterprise and a subset of the social economy.
  2. WISEs are enterprises having made explicit that their main objective is the professional integration of groups with support needs (disabled or disadvantaged persons). This is done either by creating permanent jobs (stable model) and/or transitional work experiences aimed at facilitating the integration of persons with supports need in the open labour market through training and job coaching opportunities (springboard model).
  3. WISEs are specifically independent businesses combining a market orientation and a social mission.
  4. WISEs are economic operators whose at least 30 % of the employees are disabled or disadvantaged workers.
  5. WISEs promote educational and training programmes designed on the basis of existing individual ability and potential within the enterprise.
  6. WISEs provide the worker needing support with regular employment contracts.
  7. WISES profits are mainly reinvested with a view to achieving their social objective.

Furthermore, creating a specific framework for WISEs is a good thing as it can be an opportunity to recognise and develop them, but it should be accompanied by specific funding. Too often, in countries where there is a dedicated law recognising WISEs, they are de facto excluded from other funding, as there are no funding dedicated to the newly acknowledged entity. Finally, ENSIE and its members suggest using those framework conditions to encourage public authorities to acknowledge the “work integration” service provided by WISEs and develop support measures such as subsidies for the recruitment of disadvantaged employees or/and an exemption or reduction of social contributions pursuant to national laws and regulations.

Public Procurement As early as 2012, just after the adoption of the SBI, the work started on the future public procurement directive. ENSIE took multiple actions to reinforce the bigger presence of social considerations and the possibility of reserved contracts in the new directive, which would be ways to support the development of WISEs.

The Directive 2014/24/EU on public procurement was published on 28th March 2014, it entered into force on April, 17th 2014 and the member states had 24 months then to transpose it into national law. The main novelty in what concerns WISEs in the Directive was the possibility for contracting authorities to reserve the right to participate in public procurement procedures to sheltered workshops and economic operators whose main aim is the social and professional integration of persons with disabilities and persons with support needs (art. 20); and to include qualitative, environmental and/or social aspects in the awarding criteria (art. 67). It offered new opportunities to social enterprises and encourage the evaluation of bids, on the basis of the best price/quality ratio. It established the rule of “economically list advantageous offer” for contracting which allows public authorities to assign more importance to social value than to the price proposed by tender participants. The EU public procurement rules provided more opportunities for reserved contracts, reducing to 30% the percentage of disadvantaged people or people with disabilities needed to reserve contracts and encouraging the adoption of “social and ethical clauses” regarding working conditions, equal opportunities etc[9].

Those possibilities have been a guarantee of more efficient and sustainable integration of disadvantaged and disabled people, all the while increasing the economic performance of WISEs and sheltered workshops by contributing to their long-term dimension and professional integration. However, the issue has always been, the implementation of this Directive by member states. Some of them, the most supportive of the development of social economy put it into place and reinforced the supportive environment for WISEs but others did not implement it or only partially. Several factors can explain those difficulties[10]: it is difficult to make ex-ante evaluation of the quality of the services and of the social value; there is also a lack of information, few opportunities to share experiences and a shortage of appropriate skills and specific education of public officers and social enterprises managers. Furthermore, the interpretation of EU rules differs between countries and between authorities and courts within the same country. In specific concerning the transposition of article 20 and its two main novelties for WISEs: namely the reference to disadvantaged persons and the decrease percentage, ENSIE did a specific analysis in 2016, finalized after two years waiting for the last transpositions. This analysis confirmed that the first opening to a wider target has been transposed by all member states except Czech Republic. The decreased percentage has not been transposed by Czech Republic, Greece, French and Hungary that have maintained the old percentage: 50%. Romania haven’t indicated a minimum share. The ‘Buying for Social Impact’ project, developed in 2018-2019 ’s showed that the use of social provisions such as reserved contracts for work integration of persons with disabilities or disadvantaged workers was quite widespread.

It is quite common to find examples of reserved contracts for work integration in countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Belgium (a result of earlier national laws following the 2004 EU Directive on Public Procurement). However, use of reserved contracts is not as widespread in Sweden and Denmark, since they were only introduced nationally following the 2014 Directive. While the use of reserved contracts is becoming more common in Eastern European countries and in Greece, the value of contracts tends to be below the thresholds set by the EU Directive.

The Commission prepared guidelines on the implementation of the new public procurement directive in order to underline the new possibilities to develop the social economy: ‘Buying Social’ - A Guide to Taking Account of Social Considerations in Public Procurement 2 nd Edition, but those were published quite late, 6 years after the publication of the Directive, in 2021. The purpose of this document was and is to raise public buyers’ awareness of the potential benefits of ‘Socially responsible public procurement’[11] and to explain in a practical way the opportunities offered by the EU legal framework. Only three pages address the ’reservations’, including also a good practice.

Integration of the most vulnerable PERSONS in the labour market

Since the middle of the 2010s, some steps forward have been taken to recognise the key contribution of WISEs.

In 2014, the European Parliament adopted a written declaration on promoting social inclusion and combating all forms of discrimination in the labour market, but did not mention the role of the social economy nor the one of WISE. It was neither the case in the Council Recommendation adopted on the 15th February 2016 on “the integration of the long-term unemployed into the labour market”. ENSIE continued its lobbying activities and organised a seminar the same year on “Being WISE towards EU 2020 strategy” at the European Parliament and in 2017, ENSIE invited several EU civil servants to visit Groupe Terre, a Belgian WISE based in Liège, in order to raise their awareness on what WISEs are doing. ENSIE also met with Commissioner Thyssen cabinet to showcase that WISEs are a solution to labour market policies and to call for a social economy action.

All those efforts gave results as in 2019, the Council adopted the conclusions on “Improving employment of people in vulnerable position in the labour market” which recognised the importance of social enterprises that “can play a vital role in sustainable job creation and in facilitating social integration”. The same year, Eurofound published a report stating that social enterprises and cooperatives were job creators through the last economic crisis.

Once again, the change in the Commission and the presence of Nicolas Schmit, a former Minister for Labour, Employment and the Social and Solidarity Economy in Luxembourg, as the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, was an evident asset for the support to the sector. In its letter of mission, an action plan for the social economy was mentioned and the role of WISEs as a way to support the most vulnerable persons’ return in the labour market has been recognised.

In its Communication “A Strong Social Europe for Just Transition”, the Commission recognised the role of the Social economy in creating jobs. Then, in the Next Generation EU, which set up the recovery plan for the EU facing the Coronavirus crisis, the Commission underlined that “a strong social economy can offer unique opportunities to help the most vulnerable to return on the labour market”.

More recently, in 2022, in its proposal for the Council Recommendation on adequate minimum income ensuring active inclusion, the European Commission underlined the role of the social economy as a facilitator of employment opportunities for minimum income beneficiaries and its recognition as a stepping stone towards attachment to the open labour market.

Social economy as an industrial sector

In 2020, the importance of the social economy grew with the acknowledgement of the social and proximity economy as one of the 14 EU industrial sector in the EU industrial strategy. This was a huge step as it allowed the social and proximity economy sector’s specificities to be taken into account and to have some dedicated policies developed.

The year before, the announcement of the launch of a call for a Blueprint project by the European Commission focusing on skills for WISEs, demonstrated that WISEs were considered as a sector by the EU.

The acknowledgement of the social and proximity economy as an industrial sector led to the creation of a pact for skills dedicated to it. It started with the organisation of a high-level meeting on skills for the social and proximity economy ecosystem, initiating discussions around a Pact for Skills for the sector. In 2020, in the updated skills agenda adopted by the Commission the role of work based learning and short-term VET programmes targeting unemployed people, as a “pathway to increased employability and easier access or return to the labour market”. Important links were also made with the importance of the social economy “which will inter alia promote entrepreneurial opportunities yielded by the social economy, such as helping local communities, striking local green deals and activating vulnerable groups”.

The discussions around the Pact for Skills took place throughout 2021 and the Pact for Skills for the sector has been adopted in May 2022 in Strasbourg. In it two indicators are directly linked to the role of WISEs: “Increase the number of mentoring schemes and recognised work-based learning trainings or targeted groups” and the “Increase the number of vulnerable people upskilled and/or reskilled with the social economy”. ENSIE is of course a signatory of the pact and committed to develop skills in the sector, especially through the B-WISE project.


Overall, that the past European Social Fund (ESF) and, in a minor way, the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) have been game changers in the development of social enterprises, including WISEs[12]. Indeed, they created opportunities and dedicated support measures for social enterprises that compensated the lack of support at national level. This has been especially the case in Central & Eastern Europe, where the ESF has been the only dedicated funding source for social enterprises.

In the new Multiannual financial framework, established for 2021-2027, the social economy and WISEs are supported through numerous funds; the EaSI strand of the European Social Fund+ (ESF+) continues to promote dedicated support activities; the Erasmus + fund encourage the development of good practices exchanges; and the ESF +, in general, finances support to social economy actors at the local level. In this contest ENSIE has called the European Commission several times to monitor the real involvement of WISEs national/regional representatives in the monitoring committees, at national and regional level and, where relevant, also in execution of the European Code of Conduct on Partnership, which is still the reference in art 8 “Partnership and Multilevel governance” of the new Common Provisions Regulation (adopted in June 2021). The European Commission should also monitor that funds are accessible for all types of enterprises and that no legal form is excluded[13]. In the framework of the ESF+, the involvement of WISEs representatives in the implementation of Operational Programmes is also crucial. Indeed, WISEs and social enterprises should be included in all the Operational Programmes in order to concretely implement the priorities of the European Pillar of Social Rights. The WISEs representatives’ involvement should be encouraged by the European Commission also for the ERDF and Cohesion Funds Operational Programmes. This involvement of social economy actors would help to reach the goal of “a more Social Europe” in the next programming period.

On the other side, as seen earlier, the SBI, led to the development of several funding initiatives for social enterprises, such as the European Social entrepreneurship funds (EuSEF), aimed to enhance the interest of private invests in social enterprises (Regulation 346/2013). It was followed by the axis Microfinance and Social Entrepreneurship of the Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI), which established an EU-level financial instrument to provide microcredits with risk-sharing guarantees. Another measure is to link this part of EaSI to the European Investment Fund, which managed two financial instruments under EaSI: the EaSi Guarantee Instrument and the EaSI Capacity Building Investments Window, that help financial institutions to expand their capacity to lend to micro-enterprises and social enterprises. Another fund set up was the Social impact Accelerator (SIA), which is a fund of funds created in 2015, by the European Investment Bank group and EIF that targets social enterprises and invests in social enterprises based on a new framework for quantifying and reporting on social impact metrics developed by EIF.

These innovative financial instruments seem more accessible for work integration social enterprises than the traditional ones because they take the risks and costs supported by WISEs into account, as well as their specific governance models, and the lack of performance measurement especially when it comes to measuring social value.

European Semester

Up until 2021, the European Semester never mentioned neither WISEs, nor -more generally- the social economy, in its documents. However, it called for measures -addressed in principle also to WISEs- that could be taken by national governments.

In the 2021 Proposal for the Joint employment report, few initiatives led by member states were mentioned[14] with regard to the social economy support and the inclusion of disadvantaged people into the labour market:

  • Spain will develop at least 30 social economy projects focused on young entrepreneurship, and digital platforms for population in rural areas. In addition, the Spain’s Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) includes a measure to support female employment in three main areas and one of them is training on digital, green, long-term care, entrepreneurship and social economy.
  • Poland intends to adopt in 2022 the Social Economy Act, which will introduce definitions of, inter alia, a social enterprise into the Polish legal order, lay down rules for the functioning of the social economy sector and provide a framework for its cooperation with other public and private actors. The Act will support the employment and social integration of people at risk of social exclusion, create new jobs in social enterprises and facilitate the provision of social services to the local community by social economy actors.
  • Croatia will direct funds and Public Employment Services (PES) resources to prioritise reactivation and (self-) employment of inactive, long-term unemployed and NEETs.
  • Lithuania will set up a pilot project to support entrepreneurship and job creation for the twin transition and the circular economy, coupled with upskilling of PES employees to the purpose.

Some reforms and investments were also directed to support social economy via the Recovery and Resilience national plans adopted in 2021. In those, we found calls to support the social economy, social entrepreneurship or active labour market policies in several countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Greece, Ireland, Slovakia, Spain and Croatia.

This was reinforced in 2022, in the Spring Package, the Commission called for “fostering business innovation including through support of SMEs, start-ups and social enterprises…”.

All these initiatives are seen and considered by WISEs as opportunities to raise their visibility and being considered as relevant stakeholders in implementing EU policies and benefiting from EU support for their development.

Green Deal

In the green area, most importantly, a recent report published by the OECD and the European Commission on publication of the report on “Making the most of the social economy’s contribution to the circular economy” demonstrated the crucial role of WISEs in this area. The same happened in the legislations that followed the Green Deal publication[15] to put it into practice, where we can only note that WISEs are acknowledged.

It started with the European circular economy action plan, adopted in 2020 that recognised the “pioneer” role of the social economy in the circular economy. In 2021, the Commission adopted its Long-term vision for Rural area which also acknowledged the role of social economy to “address challenges and opportunities by promoting social economy and social enterprises innovation and helping to pool business resources in rural areas, as well as to support social economy stakeholders in innovation, quality job creation and social inclusion”. In 2021, ENSIE was also accepted as part of the Just Transition Platform, a working group instituted by the European Commission to follow the implementation of the Just transition plan, acknowledging the role of WISEs in them.

2022, continued on this line with the adoption of the “Council Recommendation on ensuring a fair transition towards climate neutrality”, which underlined the importance to draw specific attention to people already in vulnerable situations. It also acknowledges that circular value retention activities generate job opportunities for groups in vulnerable situations through social economy entities active in these areas.

The adoption of the Social Economy Action Plan (SEAP) and its follow-up

The development of an Action Plan to foster the social economy in Europe has been a long coming. Its delivery was mentioned already in the 1990’s and called for various declarations since then. However, it was only in 2019 that the new Commission announced its delivery in the next years and the Social Economy Action Plan was actually published in December 2021.

The SEAP clearly refers to Work Integration Social Enterprises as a type of social enterprise widespread across Europe and specialized in providing work opportunities for disadvantaged people. We can find this in the chapter 2. Defining social economy. Along with this, the Plan refers to key activities targeting WISEs, as the revision of the General Block Exemption Regulation, first to simplify it and then regarding the definition of disadvantaged and severely disadvantaged workers and of the aids for their employment and training. Another important activity will be a better implementation by Member States of the Directive 2014/24/EU on public procurement which encourage reserved contracts and social clauses. Crucial will be also the support the development of partnerships between for profit enterprises and WISEs as well as Corporate Social Responsibility. Generally speaking, the SEAP in itself is a list of actions that the European Commission committed to enforce until 2030. It confirms the fact that support to the social economy in general can be mainstreamed in most of the EU policies, from the Green Deal, to the industrial policy, investments, social policy, etc. It aims to support the development of the sector by creating enabling conditions for the development of the different entities of the social economy, WISEs included, opening opportunities and support capacity building, enhance their recognition and potential. Of course, the European Commission won’t be able to do so by itself; this is why the role of national governments will be crucial in the next years, as well as that of stakeholders on the ground.

Another important step has been taken with the French Presidency which was also involved in the implementation of the SEAP and organised a meeting to encourage the national implementation of the Plan. Notably with a Conference on “Inclusion policies to address the challenges of recovery” and during an informal meeting of European Ministers for the Social Economy on “The social economy, the future of Europe”. The European Parliament supported the implementation of the SEAP with an own initiative report.

International acknowledgement

In 2022, Social economy was at the forefront of international discussions with the ILO and the OECD discussing report on the topic. The former adopted a Proposed resolution and conclusions concerning decent work and the social and solidarity economy during the 110th international labour conference and the latter adopted a Recommendation of the Council on the Social and Solidarity Economy and Social Innovation. Both texts are crucial for the sector, in view of the European Commission’s social economy action plan and its implementation, as they both bring much to the current discussions and are excellent basis for declination at the European level. The OECD recommendation acknowledges the role of the social economy as a supporter of the “work integration of disadvantaged groups” and it sheds light on “the need to support the SSE’s potential for building social inclusion, especially as regards women, youth and disadvantaged groups, such as the unemployed, persons with disabilities, migrant workers and indigenous people” and the acknowledgment of the “value the local anchoring of the SSE and its contribution to both well-established and innovative solutions to provide decent work opportunities and meet the needs of disadvantaged groups and persons in vulnerable situations, particularly women, including in rural areas” (in the ILO resolution). Nevertheless, no specific mention is made to WISEs and their specificities.

Next steps

At the end of this analysis, what is the overall evaluation of EU policies towards WISEs? Data reveal contrasting trends.

Certainly, over the last fifteen years, awareness of the role of the social economy and its contribution to the lives of citizens has increased. Moreover, some concrete measures to support the social economy have gradually been taken.

Furthermore, although less widely, it is recognised that, among the many benefits the social economy can generate, there is the creation of job opportunities for disadvantaged workers.

Indeed, over the past 20 years, many EU Member States have recognized WISEs through the introduction of ad hoc legislation, for instance by adjusting existing legislation on cooperatives so as to allow for the integration of disadvantaged people or by introducing WISE statuses.

The last step, however, seems still to be taken at EU level: that is, the recognition that work integration is pursued by specific social economy actors: the WISEs. They are not identifiable by one sole legal form, as WISEs cover very different legal structures and employ hundreds of thousands of people -who would otherwise not be employed- thanks to innovative integration pathways, which take stock of their capabilities and skills. Therefore, the SEAP follow-up acts should include specific measures aimed at fully recognising fostering WISEs’ development on a wide scale.

Work integration social enterprises started to self-organise at the end of the 1990’s. Indeed, in 1999, national federations of social integration enterprises[16] met in Barcelona to start the discussion around the creation of a network representing their interests. Their reasoning was the following: regulations are more and more defined at EU rather than national level; there are “good practices” in each country, but they rarely manage to overcome national borders; it is important that workers from diverse EU countries can meet.” They acknowledged the growing role of the European Union and the single market and the need to develop exchanges.

After the Barcelona Seminar, the partners decided to meet every three months and in May 2001, a formal network was created, the European Network of Social Integration Enterprises, ENSIE, in Bruges. The objective of ENSIE was to support and develop networks and federations of social integration economy in Europe. The eight founding members were ACEI[17], BAG Arbeit, BDV[18], CECOP, CNEI[19], RES, SOEB-Verband and SST[20].

ENSIE struggles to both raise awareness on the importance of WISEs and influence EU and national policies so that enabling policy measures are adopted that can harness the potential of WISEs.

Against this background, since its inception, the network has been to committed to support its members through mutual-learning; stimulate collaborative relationships and partnership by promoting the exchange of good practices, research results, new applications; organize national and local legislative policy information exchange between member organisations; represent and promote the network and the activities on all relevant European levels; work on contributions and proposals in order to participate at the definition of European policies against social exclusion; and develop strong and solid cooperation with other existing European networks of social economy in order to gain synergetic results.

Since 2001, ENSIE has ensured a regular mention of WISEs at EU level through the organisation and the participation to international events and conferences especially linked to employment and labour markets, in particular active labour market policies. For example, in 2008, ENSIE was invited to an EU Commission peer-review on “The social economy perspective of active inclusion - Employment opportunities for people far from the labour market”.

The network, through participation in various EU projects, such as the Elexies project which aimed to showcased the role of WISEs, their characteristics and how they are developed in 12 EU countries, its lobbying activities and the participation to various conferences at the EU level, grew during its first decade. It became a legitimate actor on the EU stage and from 2011 it has been recognised as a key EU-level NGO network active in the areas of social inclusion and poverty reduction. As such, ENSIE benefited from a pluri-annual operating grant, under the EaSI programme (the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation).

Since then, the network continued to grow, and its acknowledgement on the EU scene in what concerns poverty reduction, labour market integration and social inclusion has been exponential. It joined various EU-level experts groups: the GECES on social economy and social enterprises, the structured dialogue with European Structural and Investment’s Funds partners group of experts,… It participated in numerous EU projects on diverse topics (digital skills, governance models in social enterprises, mutual learning in employment and competences, socially responsible public procurement…) and it developed its lobbying activities to encourage the development of WISEs at national level through the support to its members activities.

One of the first steps of the network has been to structure the field and to agree on a common definition for work integration social enterprises that is applicable in all EU countries, given the existence of diverse legal frameworks depending on historical and legal factors.

Overall, ENSIE members agreed on a definition of WISEs that involves three principles:

> WISEs are enterprises whose objective is the social and professional integration of individuals who, through their exclusion and their relegation to a marginal role in society have fallen victim to increasing social and professional handicaps.

> WISEs are enterprises operating at the core of the economic system, even though, it is the major factor in the phenomenon of exclusion.

> WISEs are enterprises with a strong pedagogical dimension, they initiate educational programs designed on the basis of existing potential within the enterprise. They also work in a democratic way.

These developments culminated with the acknowledgement of the WISEs as an independent sector through the granting of a European Commission funded project, B-WISE that aims to develop a European strategy addressing skills needs in the WISEs sector. It was the first time WISEs as such were considered in dedicated EU policies.

In the last 20 years, the network grew and is counting today 31 members from 25 countries (21 from the EU and Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine and Serbia).

Box. ENSIE, WISEs and the drawing of an EU-wide definition.

DOI: 10.7425/IS.2023.01.05


European Commission (2020). Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe. Comparative synthesis report. Authors: C. Borzaga, G. Galera, B. Franchini, S. Chiomento, R. Nogales & C. Carini. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Available at:!Qq64ny [Accessed 11 January 2023].

Social Economy Europe “Important Milestones” Consulted on 10/01/2023)


  1. ^
  2. ^ “Building an economy that works for people: an action plan for the social economy”, European Commission, December 2021
  3. ^ Social Economy Europe, « Social Economy… taking back the initiative – Proposals to make the social economy into a pillar of the European Union”, 2015.
  4. ^ Report on the application of Regulation 1435/2003 (COM(2012)72 final.
  5. ^ CIRIEC, « Recent évolutions of the Social Economy in the European Union”, 2016.
  6. ^ P. 42, CIRIEC, « Recent évolutions of the Social Economy in the European Union”, 2016.
  7. ^ P. 28 European Commission (2020). Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe. Comparative synthesis report. Authors: C. Borzaga, G. Galera, B. Franchini, S. Chiomento, R. Nogales & C. Carini. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Available at:!Qq64ny [Accessed 11 January 2023].
  8. ^ ICF and RadarAdvies, “Peer Review on Social Entrepreneurship to tackle unmet social challenges” synthesis report, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, March 2018. P. 2.
  9. ^ P. 84 European Commission (2020). Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe. Comparative synthesis report. Authors: C. Borzaga, G. Galera, B. Franchini, S. Chiomento, R. Nogales & C. Carini. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Available at:!Qq64ny [Accessed 11 January 2023].
  10. ^ P. 85-86 European Commission (2020). Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe. Comparative synthesis report. Authors: C. Borzaga, G. Galera, B. Franchini, S. Chiomento, R. Nogales & C. Carini. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Available at:!Qq64ny [Accessed 11 January 2023].
  11. ^ Socially responsible public procurement (SRPP) aims to address the impact on society of the goods, services and works purchased by the public sector. It recognises that public buyers are not just interested in purchasing at the lowest price or best value for money, but also in ensuring that procurement achieves social benefits and prevents or mitigates adverse social impacts during the performance of the contract.
  12. ^ P. 75European Commission (2020). Social enterprises and their ecosystems in Europe. Comparative synthesis report. Authors: C. Borzaga, G. Galera, B. Franchini, S. Chiomento, R. Nogales & C. Carini. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Available at:!Qq64ny [Accessed 11 January 2023].
  13. ^ For example, in the 2014-2020 programming period, in Romania existing social enterprises, irrespective of their legal form, were not eligible to receive funding under the ESF Operational programme Human Capital - measures for social enterprises - only start-up social enterprises were eligible; NGOs, including social enterprises registered as NGOs were not eligible for enterprises funding under ERDF and EARDF. The situation, for social enterprises, seems to be improving for the new programming period.
  14. ^ Please read the Proposal for the Joint Employment report to discover all initiatives undertaken by member states to tackle current challenges related to employment, skills shortages, education, green transition, digitalisation etc.
  15. ^ Adopted by the European Commission in the December 2019
  16. ^ Now recognized as ‘work integration social enterprises’
  17. ^ Now FEICAT
  18. ^ Now arbeit+
  19. ^ Now la federation des entreprises d’insertion
  20. ^ Now Herwin
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