Official Journal of the European Union

C 128/149

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘European Year of Volunteering 2011’

COM(2009) 254 final (2009/0072 (CNS))

(additional opinion)

(2010/C 128/30)

Rapporteur-general: Ms Soscha zu EULENBURG

On 29 September 2009, the Bureau of the European Economic and Social Committee, acting under Rule 29A of the implementing provisions of the Rules of Procedure, decided to draw up an additional opinion on the:

European Year of Volunteering 2011

COM(2009) 254 final (2009/0072 (CNS)

and instructed the Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship to prepare the Committee's work on the subject.

Given the urgent nature of the work, the European Economic and Social Committee appointed Ms Soscha zu Eulenburg as rapporteur-general at its 457th plenary session, held on 4 and 5 November 2009 (meeting of 5 November), and unanimously adopted the following opinion:

1.   Conclusions

1.1.   The EESC welcomes the proposal for the European Year of Volunteering 2011. This initiative recognises the valuable contribution made by those many citizens who, by volunteering in a variety of areas, place themselves at the service of society and social cohesion in Europe.

1.2.   The EESC considers that the objectives set for the year are such that they will secure added value for the European public.

1.3.   The EESC emphasises that volunteer work must not be exploited for other ends.

1.4.   In order to generate long-term synergistic benefits, close links should be forged with other European years: 2010 (combating poverty) and 2012 (active ageing and intergenerational solidarity).

1.5.   The EESC proposes that a political agenda to promote volunteer work and the appropriate infrastructure be put in place in the EU Member States.

1.6.   The EESC feels that a propitious environment is needed to garner the required support and secure the proper infrastructure for voluntary work at local, regional, national and European level and to enable the public to take part.

1.7.   The EESC advocates the establishment of lasting European-level structures. The setting-up of a stakeholder platform for volunteering activities could help achieve this objective.

1.8.   The EESC feels that considerably more funding is urgently needed to meet the declared objectives and give due consideration to the local dimension.

1.9.   The stakeholders involved must be given time to prepare and implement the year effectively. The Council and the European Parliament should therefore take the necessary substantive and financial decisions as quickly as possible.

1.10.   On the basis of the evaluation report, a white paper should be drawn up indicating follow-up and further steps and measures to be taken at European level.

2.   Objectives of the Commission proposal

2.1.   In June 2009, the Commission submitted a proposal for a Council decision on the European Year of Volunteering 2011. This European Year is designed to promote the importance and usefulness of voluntary work for European societies.

2.2.   The Commission proposes four objectives for the European Year of Volunteering:

The creation of an enabling environment will help anchor volunteering as part of promoting civic participation and people-to-people activities.

To facilitate volunteering and to encourage networking, mobility and cooperation, voluntary organisations are to be empowered and the quality of the activity improved.

Volunteering activities are to be rewarded and recognised, not least by encouraging appropriate incentives for individuals, business and organisations.

The general public are to be made more aware of the value and importance of volunteering.

2.3.   The objectives are to be realised through exchanges of experience, the dissemination of study findings, the staging of conferences, and events such as information and PR campaigns. Funding of EUR 6 million has been earmarked for 2011, with an additional EUR 2 million for preparatory work in 2010.

3.   General comments

3.1.   The EESC welcomes the Commission proposal for the European Year of Volunteering. The Commission is thus acting on requests and suggestions expressed by the EESC and other civil society organisations, and by the European Parliament.

3.2.   The EESC is very pleased to note the Commission's willingness to pursue in-depth civic dialogue with civil society organisations. The aim in relation to the coordinating bodies that are to be set up and in the planning and execution of the relevant activities must be, at national level too, to involve civil society organisations and work out appropriate national and European policy agendas. The open method of coordination could serve as a model here.

3.3.   The name ‘European Year of Volunteering’ is well chosen, in that it takes in the full spectrum of the issue at hand. It is specific enough for the European public to relate to and provides sufficient scope to cover all the various facets of voluntary engagement. The name thus reflects both the cross-cutting nature of volunteering activity and the myriad of sectors in which volunteers operate. It should therefore be retained.

3.4.   The EESC is pleased at the emphasis placed on the importance of volunteering as an expression of civic involvement, European values, solidarity and European societal development. The EESC has noted the significance of this aspect in a number of opinions.

3.5.   Voluntary work must never, on any account, be exploited for other ends. Volunteers are not political tools: they are an expression or component of active citizenship. Thanks to their commitment, they give practical shape and form to abstract values such as social integration, social cohesion, solidarity and lifelong learning in areas such as the environment, sport, human rights, culture, to name but a few.

3.6.   At several points in the proposal, the Commission highlights the danger of voluntary work being exploited for other ends, for instance, on the labour market or with regard to employability. Recital 3, for example, emphasises volunteering activity as ‘a non-formal learning experience which enables both the development of professional skills and competences as well as a major form of active civic participation which enables both the development of professional skills and competences as well as a major form of active civic participation’. Non-formal learning experiences, which may indeed make it easier to find a job and boost employability, are a very positive by-product.

3.7.   The current economic and financial crisis is often cited as an illustration of the need for a rethink in various different areas. Great care must be taken to resist the knee-jerk urge to fall back on volunteers to mitigate adverse social impacts of the crisis. In fact, for the voluntary sector, the crisis is once again showing the real social value of civic participation, demonstrating solidarity in practice and giving people the chance to work to help their fellows, while at the same time helping themselves, not least in improving skills and/or building up social networks. Voluntary work has the potential, therefore, to cushion the effects of the crisis and help prevent society from drifting apart. This, however, is not a consequence of the crisis, but a reflection of the genuine value of voluntary commitment that is now being ‘rediscovered’.

4.   Specific comments

4.1.   Creating a suitable environment

4.1.1.   A legal framework is needed to secure the infrastructure required for voluntary work at local, regional, national and European level and to make it easier for people to get involved. Furthermore, the requisite financial and political conditions must be in place to remove any obstacles to voluntary work. (1)

4.2.   Empowering organisations

4.2.1.   Promoting voluntary organisations as places and catalysts for civic engagement is crucial: these organisations are for the most part the first and only contact point for volunteers and have often been set up by volunteers themselves. In 2011, particular attention should be paid to exchanges of experience and to improving the capacity and quality of work of voluntary organisations, which are the backbone of civil society and voluntary participation.

4.2.2.   The aim must be to establish sustainable structures at a European level too. A stakeholder platform for volunteering activities could ensure that the impact of this initiative is felt beyond 2011 and that steps are taken to foster a policy conducive to voluntary work.

4.2.3.   The European Year of Volunteering 2011 should be used as an opportunity to highlight and exchange examples of best practice.

4.3.   Improving quality

4.3.1.   In connection with improving quality, the Commission proposal refers inter alia to ‘professionalisation’. This notion is open to misunderstanding and should be avoided. The main aim is to safeguard the quality of volunteering activity. Volunteers have the right to invest their free time in sectors they enjoy. Their commitment provides a service to society, to individuals – and also to themselves. Action is needed to secure the funding and staffing required to raise skills levels, to provide, further education and training and to give support during voluntary work.

4.4.   Recognition of volunteering activities

4.5.   The EESC welcomes the emergence of a ‘culture of recognition’. However, the word ‘reward’ should be avoided in reference to volunteers. It creates confusion as the reward in question is not, of course, financial. Moreover, the term ‘reward’ is not without controversy. The European Year of Volunteering 2011 should not blur the difference between paid employment and unpaid voluntary activity, but rather seek to show how both are mutually reinforcing.

4.6.   Raising awareness about the value and importance of volunteering

4.7.   Raising awareness among the general public is welcomed as a key objective. However, care must be taken to ensure that sufficient resources are in place to achieve this. An effective and successful EU-level awareness-raising campaign conveying the opportunities and usefulness of volunteering would, if the message is really to get through to people, cost in the region of EUR 3.5 million, thereby immediately using up more than half the available funding. This figure does not seem enough. For comparison: spending on the European Year of Education through Sport in 2004 was EUR 12.3 million. The evaluation report requested by the Commission itself found, however, that awareness of this year among the European public was low or virtually non-existent and that its core messages had not come through.

4.8.   Funding

4.8.1.   The proposal provides for funding to the tune of EUR 6 million for activities in 2011 and EUR 2 million for preparatory work in 2010. If the stated objectives are to be achieved, and if, more importantly, due attention is to be paid to the local dimension of voluntary work among the European public, the EU must put come up with realistic funding. We consider EUR 6 million for all the activities at European and Member State level to be insufficient. It would be disastrous if 2011, with less than half the budget of the 2004 year mentioned above, were to end up with a similar result and if the worthy objectives were not attained simply because of lack of funding.

4.8.2.   In 2005, the UK government provided GBP 10 million for the British Year of Volunteering alone, and the Valencia region set aside EUR 4.2 million for a similar year in its area. The special 2010 year can serve as a good example of a realistic budget at EU level: a sum of EUR 17 million has been made available, of which EUR 9 million is earmarked for activities in the Member States. In turn, the Member States have agreed to provide an additional EUR 9 million.

4.9.   White paper

4.9.1.   For monitoring and evaluation purposes, the Commission intends to submit a report on the implementation and outcome of the venture and an overall assessment of the initiatives undertaken. The EESC notes its proposal in this regard and strongly recommends setting out further steps and measures in a white paper so that the European year can have a lasting impact.

4.10.   Using synergies

4.10.1.   It is vital to identify and exploit the synergies between 2010 (combating poverty), 2011 (volunteering) and 2012 (active ageing and intergenerational solidarity). These three European years provide a unique opportunity to give a certain cohesion to the activities of the European institutions and the Member States in the field of civic solidarity throughout the entire period – and thus to achieve lasting results. The organising teams responsible for these three years in the European and national institutions should work closely together.

4.11.   Interinstitutional process

4.11.1.   To give all the stakeholders involved time to prepare and implement the European year, the Council and the European Parliament should be urged to take the necessary decisions without delay. The end of 2009 should be the deadline for this so that the preparatory phase can officially begin and the relevant funding released.

Brussels, 5 November 2009.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI

(1)  One example amongst many such obstacles: in several countries, the number of hours those not in paid employment are allowed to work on a voluntary basis is severely restricted.