Urging business to use associations as a "joint platform for being creative," Susanne Zaenker of AISE, an association representing manufacturers of soap, detergents and maintenance products, told the 2009 edition of Kellen Europe's annual Euroconference that the crisis presents a "unique opportunity for associations to take the lead in proposing concrete measures to boost skills".
"We can be quicker and more effective than governments here," she argued.
Echoing her comments, Alfons Westgeest, managing partner at Kellen Europe, said associations could help business to cut costs by assuming more of their members' workload.
Calling on federations and business to work together to define "who does what," Westgeest said "associations might have to pick up work that is no longer possible in companies, rather than duplicating efforts".
"But it's a delicate balancing act," he warned.
Opportunity for associations to be 'pro-active'
This view was echoed by business representatives themselves. "This is the moment for associations to make sure that they are pro-active and contributing in a business way, and not just collecting their members' ideas," said Hanns Glatz of German car giant Daimler.
"There is an opportunity for associations to replace some of business’s functions," he added.
Others sounded a cautious note. "It's not OK for companies to behave differently to their associations," argued Christopher Burghardt, vice-president for corporate affairs at Anheuser-Busch InBev. "I see associations as an extension of my company's arm, and we need to behave in one and the same way," he said.
Europe 'more affected' than US
"Europe seems to be more affected by the crisis than the US," observed Business Europe Director Marc Stocker, a fact which he described as "striking" given that the turmoil began in the States.
Giving his reasons for this, Stocker cited Europe's higher level of exposure than America to the collapse of global trade and its higher level of corporate indebtedness. He also said Europe's fiscal and monetary stimuli were taking longer to have an effect than America's own recovery plan.
The business chief said he expected banks to "remain cautious in future," because European companies had invested more and thus had more refinancing needs than their American counterparts.
Stocker called on the European Commission to "be strong" in ensuring that state-aid and competition rules were being respected in national stimulus plans.
Indeed, Daimler's Glatz said it was important for companies to continue their involvement with associations at a time when the EU institutions are producing a raft of important legislation.
"We are not terminating our association memberships, because environmental legislation is still coming off the pipeline," he said.
"There is a terrible fight within governments and the Commission between keeping business running and maintaining environmental and social standards," Glatz explained. "Companies need to stay members of associations to make sure they can live with the solutions."
Indeed, earning the recognition of decision-makers and the media are among the main concerns of federations at the moment, according to a EurActiv survey presented at the conference (EurActiv 08/04/09).
The survey found that over 40% of federations have 50-plus members, with membership levels expected to remain stable in the years to come.