Ministers, distinguished conference participants, ladies and gentlemen,

The European social model and our social market economy are success stories: for the most part, our citizens enjoy high living standards, good social protection and opportunities to participate in the economy and in the society at large.

However, when this European Commission started its mandate two years ago, we had historically high levels of youth and long-term unemployment. Today, despite the positive signals we get regarding the decrease of the youth unemployment (- 1,4 million) or the reduction of poverty (- 8 million less poor people), we are still confronted with the aftermath of the crisis.

Too many families live in poverty and too many young people find it difficult to realise their potential on the job market.

In a context where unprecedented challenges such as refugee crisis, new technologies and changing work patterns, put the European project on the test, we see individuals and groups afraid to become the loosers of the globalisation and the digitalisation. Desperation is a fertile ground for populism.

People tend to believe that returning to the good old time and getting back to national borders will protect them better.

There is a lot at stake today:

- core European values, such as respect for human dignity, equality, human rights, including rights of persons belonging to minorities, solidarity, non-discrimination and tolerance,
- the core achievements of European integration, such as free movement of workers,
- citizens' trust in our democratic institutions and the trust between citizens themselves.

In other words, our social cohesion needs urgently to be reinforced. Therefore, our strategy must be based on growth and jobs of course but that is not enough. The European project must be based also on fairness, solidarity, social justice and our policies must be reflect that concretely.

The Commission has chosen priorities which restore social justice and reconnect people and businesses with the basic principles of our social market economy.

In this context we are bringing forward a "European Pillar of Social Rights" with three main objectives:

1. promote social fairness;

2. tackle growing divergences between, and within, Member States, and;

3. support adaptation to the rapidly changing world of work and society.

To make this agenda real, we need to mobilise all relevant partners in our societies, down to the local level, and create new partnerships between public authorities, businesses and civil society.

Making a social market economy real entails that we create conditions which nurture socially and societally responsible and sustainable businesses.

Businesses, which look beyond short term profit maximisation.

Businesses, which bear their responsibility towards their employees, their local community and the society at large.

Businesses, which promote the skills and competences of their employees and build on their innovative capacities.

Ladies and gentlemen, you represent a part of economy and civil society, which has a unique and essential role in this context.  You are committed to promote enterprises which explicitly aim at achieving social impact and which don’t put capital or profit before people.

You represent enterprises, which have an exceptional capacity to boost social innovation, to create sustainable and inclusive jobs and to promote civic participation, social cohesion and trust among local communities.

Therefore, I am here today to confirm to you that the European Commission recognises the huge value social enterprises bring to our economies and our societies.

For me, the whole economy should be "social", putting the people at the centre of everything. And I know I am not alone thinking like that today.

For the Union to get a "social triple A" rating, we do need partners who not only share our values but also deliver effectively concrete results on the spot, close to the people. You, social entrepreneurs, are among these key partners!

The Commission has taken several measures during the past years under its Social Business Initiative and has encouraged Member States to develop favourable conditions for social economy and social enterprises. Logically, social economy and social enterprises are amongst the priorities of the European Social Fund.

Many countries use European Social Fund actively to develop bold initiatives in this field, such as the Portuguese Social Innovation Fund or the Polish National Fund for Social Entrepreneurship, just to name a few. Counting all countries' together, more than 1.3 billion euros have been earmarked for this priority.

The European Social Fund brings me to the issue of skills in Europe. Today, 70 million Europeans are considered low skilled. Low skills put people at greater risk of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. This is why the Commission has proposed a Skills Agenda in June this year, which seeks to tackle the problem of low skills, as well as to ensure that people have the right skills, including a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship.

But we also recognise that there is untapped potential, barriers and bottle necks, which hamper the start and scale-up of social enterprises in many countries.  That's why we continue to develop and implement new measures.

As we speak, we are about to sign 20 new grant agreements with organisations promoting social investment markets in Member States.

Together with the European Investment Fund – the Commission launched some weeks ago Social Impact Investment Instruments under the European Fund for Strategic Investment. These instruments, focussing on Incubators, Business Angels, and Payment by results schemes, will boost social investment markets and provide new opportunities for social enterprises in Europe to start-up and scale-up.

We use the European Fund for Strategic Investment to increase the scale of the financial instruments for social enterprises and microfinance in our programme for Employment and Social Innovation.

The total amount of support to these areas is expected to increase from 193 million euros under the Employment and Social Innovation programme to about 1 billion euros, mobilising some 3 billion euros in additional investment for enterprises.

And the Commission announced last week - in the framework of Start-Up and Scale-up initiative - a new set of measures to promote scaling-up emerging social businesses.

I am personally very committed to make these new measures strong and effective and so are Vice-President Dombrovskis and Commissioner Bienkowska with whom we work closely together in this field.

I very much welcome the excellent report of the Experts Group on Social Entrepreneurship - GECES – on which the Commission will draw to design forthcoming measures.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am aware that many members of the GECES expert group are present today.  Let me advance my warmest thanks to all of you. Your voluntary participation in the expert group is an expression of commitment and willingness to make Europe a better place.

Building favourable conditions for social economy and social enterprises is a European challenge and the Commission is ready to do its part. But much needs to be done at national, regional and local levels.

I want to thank the Slovak presidency for organising today's conference, which brings the agenda forward. I have also taken note of the very strong message in last year's Council Conclusions, which notably asked the Commission to facilitate capacity building and mutual learning between the Member States.

The Commission is ready to do this. And to make it effective and relevant we look forward to working in partnership with other organisations, such as the OECD and the bodies representing local and regional authorities as well as social enterprise and social economy organisations.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need to continue jointly our European journey in the field of social economy and social enterprises. European in terms of the direction we go and European in terms of the way we do.

Thank you for your attention.