11.9.2009   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 218/1


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the European Civic Service (exploratory opinion)

(2009/C 218/01)

In a letter dated 3 July 2008, in the context of the French Presidency of the European Union, the French Minister for Foreign and European Affairs asked the European Economic and Social Committee to draft an exploratory opinion on the following subject:

European civic service’.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee’s work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 4 February 2009. The rapporteur was Mr JANSON and the co-rapporteur was Mr SIBIAN.

At its 451st plenary session, held on 25 and 26 February 2009 (meeting of 25 February.), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 131 votes to 7 with 9 abstentions.

1.   Summary and conclusions

1.1

The EESC warmly welcomes the French Presidency’s initiative. It would also like to refer to the Council Recommendation of 20 November 2008 on the Mobility of Young Volunteers across the EU (1). However, given the wide variety of systems regarding young people’s active participation in society, the best way of approaching this question is to base a European initiative on a framework:

of cooperation between voluntary activities open to all, unpaid, undertaken freely, educational (non-formal learning aspect) and bringing added social value;

characterised by a fixed period of activity; with clear objectives, contents, tasks, structure and framework, having appropriate support and legal and social protection;

where this also has a European and transnational context.

1.2

Active participation in society, including transnational exchanges, is of great benefit for personal development, especially of young people, as well as the development of organised civil society in Europe. For the volunteers this is a unique opportunity for formal and informal learning and to acquire social and language skills. This can raise a sense of European citizenship and strengthen the intention to continue their commitment later in life. Including other age groups, such as older people, in the schemes can enable them to make use of their life experience. This has a positive effect on their health and quality of life. When people from different age groups act together in undertaking voluntary activity, understanding between generations can also be promoted.

1.3

The EESC is of the opinion that the Union should set ambitious objectives aiming at broader participation of people in civil society. An initial step is to follow the EESC recommendations set out in the previous opinion (2).

1.4

The EESC would therefore be pleased if Member States launched cooperation between organisers of voluntary activities, whereby the existing forms of voluntary activities would include a transnational element.

1.5

The EU could promote a European Citizenship Initiative (3) combining policies and activities for exchange programmes beyond today’s emphasis on youth. One objective could be a contribution to European integration. The EESC finds it natural that the European Union should devote more financial resources to such programmes. It should make it possible initially to double the current rate of participation in youth exchanges and significantly increase the participation rate of other age groups.

1.6

The EESC believes that it is necessary to target to a greater extent disadvantaged people and in particular young people with fewer opportunities.

1.7

It would be essential, to ensure better cooperation between the existing national and European programmes, to reduce technical obstacles as well as issues regarding health insurance coverage and accident insurance. For this purpose the European Union could consider developing a brand for exchange programmes meeting the Union’s quality standards. Quality of voluntary activities, whatever form they take, is important and needs to be ensured by the appropriate means.

1.8

The EESC feels it is important to promote a third country element contributing to EU’s work towards the Millennium Goals and implementation of European Development and Humanitarian Aid policy.

1.9

The EU needs to evaluate this area by initiating and supporting research, as well as develop the statistical components.

1.10

Insurance and health and safety issues also need to be resolved. Adequate social protection should be guaranteed for volunteers during their service but that becomes difficult if the provisions for transnational volunteers with regard to social security differ from country to country. The EESC therefore would encourage the Commission to promote a common understanding of these issues, and calls for Members States and the appropriate institutions to resolve these important questions.

1.11

The EESC is aware that this subject needs a follow-up e.g. in the form of a conference. This should include the participation of all national services bodies, the European Commission and non-governmental organisations active in the field of either youth - or voluntary service, with the aim of promoting the development of a European Citizenship Initiative framework.

2.   Points of departure

2.1

The EESC warmly welcomes the French Presidency’s initiative to ask the EESC to draft an exploratory opinion on European Civic Service.

2.2

However, given the wide variety of systems regarding young peoples’ active participation in society, be it civic service, voluntary service or other forms of participation, a European initiative must be clear about its framework and definition. The EESC believes that the best way of approaching this question at European level is to go beyond a traditional civic service and base a European initiative on a framework:

of a voluntary service open to all, unpaid, freely undertaken, educational (non-formal learning aspect) and bringing added social value;

characterised by a fixed period of activity; with clear objectives, contents, tasks, structure and framework, having appropriate support and legal and social protection;

where this also has a European and transnational context.

2.3

This could be called a European Citizenship Initiative and include a wide variety of traditions and practices of voluntary activities including civic services in the different Member States.

2.4

Already in the Treaty establishing the European Economic Community there were provisions for an exchange of young workers to promote and deepen solidarity between peoples of Europe.

2.5

A previous EESC opinion on volunteering (4) made a number of recommendations, including:

to announce a Year of Volunteers, and to publish a White Paper on voluntary activity and active citizenship in Europe;

to encourage the governments of the Member States to frame national policies on voluntary activity;

Member States should draw up a legal framework to guarantee the right to carry out a voluntary activity independently of an individual’s legal or social status;

the need, at European level, for reliable and comparable statistics in the field;

EU funding, policies and programmes should do more to promote voluntary activity, and adequate infrastructure should be put in place throughout Europe to support voluntary action.

to make pan-European volunteer programmes available to all the population.

2.6

The EESC feels that, even though progress has been made, many of the recommendations and proposals have not yet been implemented. With this opinion the EESC again underlines the need to implement the recommendations of the previous opinion as well as increasing ambition for a specific area of volunteering, namely voluntary services.

2.7

The EESC believes there is a need for a greater involvement of civil society in European integration. An ambitious European Citizenship Initiative accessible to all age groups can help to bridge the gap of trust between the ordinary citizen and the European Union. The promotion of people’s active citizenship contributes to the European Union’s principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, equality between men and women and non-discrimination.

2.8

The EESC underlines the need for greater, active participation in society of all people, but especially of young and/or disadvantaged people, in order to strengthen their sense of citizenship and solidarity. Cooperation among the Member States, the European Commission and the EESC in the field of civic services should also be enhanced.

2.9

In the current Treaty, the legal basis for youth policies and citizenship activities lies in Articles 149 and 151, excluding any harmonisation of laws but giving the EU possibilities for encouraging cooperation between Member States and promoting youth exchanges. The Lisbon Treaty widens the scope for youth policies somewhat, adding the participation of young people in democratic life in Europe.

2.10

The Lisbon Treaty, once it comes into effect, will establish a framework for joint contributions from young Europeans to the humanitarian aid operations of the Union, a European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps.

2.11

At present volunteer activities are carried out primarily through the open method of coordination in the framework of European Union’s Youth policies’ three priority strands:

encouraging participation of young people in active citizenship and civil society;

promoting voluntary activities among young people;

enhancing information addressed to young people and existing information services for young people, promoting voluntary activities among them, encouraging greater understanding and knowledge of youth.

2.12

There are several reasons to reflect on increasing active participation in society in Europe. The European Union has a bigger responsibility than any other continent to meet the millennium goals. It is one of the world’s largest donors. Involving Europe’s citizens in meeting the world’s biggest challenges would not only contribute to the individuals’ own development but also foster understanding and create necessary networks in a globalised world.

2.13

National civilian services have sometimes existed as an alternative to military service. With phasing out of compulsory military service and increasing professionalisation of the army in the Member States, civilian services are also reduced. On the other hand, the development of youth voluntary services could also be an attractive alternative to involve young people in society even when military/public service becomes less frequent.

2.14

Volunteering and other civic society initiatives are attracting more and more attention. Representatives of the Member States, acceding countries and the European Commission met in Rome at the invitation of the Italian Presidency in 2004, for the first Conference on Civic Service and Youth. The Italian conference presidency advised in its conclusions, amongst other things:

systematic and regular exchange of information and good practices and strengthened cooperation between civic services and youth policy;

greater participation of young people in civic services in order to strengthen their citizenship and sense of solidarity;

enhanced cooperation among the Member States, acceding countries and the European Commission in the field of civic services for young people.

3.   Present exchange programmes

3.1   Europe

3.1.1

Included in the Youth in Action programme is the European Voluntary Service (EVS). Volunteers between the age of 18 and 30 spend from two to 12 months abroad. They can benefit from specific training and their learning experience is formally recognised in a Youthpass. Between 1996 and 2006, 30 000 volunteers participated in the European Voluntary Service.

3.1.2

From 2009 onwards, older people will be included in the institutionalised forms of European voluntary service, within the framework of the Gruntvig programme. Despite the fact that initially the scale of these exchanges will not be significant, it is worth noting that the European Commission is looking for ways of supporting voluntary work carried out by different age groups. Furthermore, the action taken under the European Commission’s Europe for Citizens programme will create real opportunities for the exchange of volunteers from different countries and different age groups.

3.1.3

Thousands of organisations working in EU countries have for many years been engaged in bilateral cooperation, an important element of which is volunteer exchanges. This takes place on a decentralised basis but data on the scale of this phenomenon is unavailable. However based on the exchanges carried out by organisations operating within global structures alone, it is clear that a significant number of Europeans participate in these programmes, particularly young people.

3.1.4

The EVS is built on certain core values and quality standards which are laid down in the EVS Charter. In order to protect and uphold these, organisations interested in sending or hosting EVS volunteers or coordinating an EVS project need first to be accredited.

3.1.5

The European Erasmus programme has been highly successful in increasing mobility for university students as well as supporting cooperation between higher education institutions. Around 90% of European universities take part in the Erasmus Programme and 1.9 million students have participated in it since its inception in 1987. The Programme is seeking to expand its mobility actions even further in the future, with the target of 3 million Erasmus students by 2012.

3.1.6

The Leonardo da Vinci programme supports mobility for those undergoing initial vocational education and training, mobility of employees or the self-employed and mobility for professionals in vocational education and training.

3.2   Member States

3.2.1

The EESC recognises the various forms and traditions of civic service and other forms of voluntary activity in the Member States, which aims at active citizenship, solidarity and social development. It underlines the role and contributions of non-governmental organisations active in the field of either youth work or voluntary service. It also is aware of the fact that not much information is available to describe Member States civic service programmes or voluntary activities.

3.2.2

In a number of Member States such as Germany, Italy and France, forms of civic service (compulsory or voluntary) for young people have been already implemented. Some other countries are either in the process of or are considering implementing such services.

4.   A European Citizenship Initiative

4.1   Current policy initiatives

The Committee welcomes the Council recommendation which aims to promote mobility of young volunteers in Europe. The EESC also welcomes the European Parliament’s resolution of 22 April 2008 on voluntary action’s role in contributing to economic and social cohesion. It highlights the need to mobilise resources for voluntary action and to open up programmes to groups other than young people.

The EESC also welcomes the Commission’s call to implement the Amicus Preparatory Action, in order to promote the transnational character of youth placements in civic service and voluntary work activities, encourage the development of a European framework and allow a testing and evaluation phase.

4.1.1

The EESC would therefore welcome those Member States with strong traditions and interest in the area initiating cooperation in which the existing forms of civic/civilian service could include a transnational element.

4.1.2

The EESC agrees that the lack of coordinated actions between the different national schemes and the scarcity of the information available limit the EVS’s possibilities and is a cause for concern. The Committee also welcomes endeavours to try to achieve a wider brand recognition for the EVS, comparable to that of the ERASMUS programme.

4.2   What should the ambitions be?

4.2.1

The EESC is of the opinion that the Union should set ambitious targets which aim at people’s broader participation in civil society. An initial step would be to follow the EESC recommendations set out in the previous opinion (see point 2.5).

4.2.2

The EU should promote a European Citizenship Initiative combining policies and activities for exchange programmes which not only emphasise youth but also ensure a stronger European component. The service period should ideally be completed in a country other than that of the participant. The Committee believes that the European Union should devote more financial resources to such programmes.

4.2.3

In the first phase, it should aim to double the current rate of participation in youth volunteer exchanges. This should be possible given that more than 100 000 students currently participate in the Erasmus programme while only a very small number of European young people participate in other youth exchange programmes in Europe. In the long term, these programmes could aim to achieve the participation levels of the Erasmus programme.

4.2.4

The EESC believes that it is necessary to target disadvantaged young people to a greater extent. This group would draw the greatest advantage from participating in civil society, but often does not have the financial and/or educational qualifications to do so.

4.2.5

Such an initiative should also include groups other than young people. Europe is ageing but older people are more active than before and also want to play a more visible role in society. Including other groups, such as retired persons, in the scheme would contribute to the concept of ‘active ageing’ as well as bring new groups of people from different countries closer to each other. It would enable older people to be involved in the life of society, to make use of their life experience and to feel useful. This would have a positive effect on their health and quality of life. When young and old act together in undertaking voluntary activity, understanding between generations can also be promoted,, experiences exchanged and mutual support offered.

4.2.6

It is important to ensure better cooperation between existing national and European programmes. This would reduce technical obstacles such as lack of mutual recognition of civic service experience, and of young people’s qualifications as well as issues regarding health and accident insurance coverage. For this purpose the European Union should decide on a brand for exchange programmes which meets the Union’s quality standards.

4.2.7

Today state support is important in stimulating programme development and guaranteeing quality standards. But no country covers all the costs of volunteer projects. Especially for transnational activities, additional private funding sources are often sought. To encourage exchanges and build up a European Citizenship Initiative the EU therefore has to increase substantially the EU budget for volunteer activities (including exchanges) to cover for example co-ordination expenses, incentive creation and cross-subsidies between countries. The EESC also encourages Member States to increase funding for these activities.

4.2.8

The Committee considers it important to promote a third country element whereby volunteers can do service abroad which contributes to the EU’s work towards the Millennium Goals and the implementation of the European Development and Humanitarian Aid policy. An initiative promoting a broader framework and a higher number of exchanges should also be coordinated with the European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps provided for in the Lisbon Treaty. The Corps should also, in the long run, include groups other than young people. In this framework it is important to make sure that the EU’s visa policies do not unnecessarily impede such exchanges.

4.2.9

Finally the EU also needs to highlight and evaluate this area by initiating and supporting research as well as developing the statistical component. Cooperation among existing civic services needs to be further discussed, followed up and monitored, in the appropriate institutional framework.

4.3   Benefits and challenges

4.3.1

The European Citizenship Initiative would help to underpin the universal as well as European values of liberty, democracy and respect for human rights in addition to the fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. Furthermore, it should also aim to develop social, language and networking skills, the construction and functioning of the European Union as well as the acquisition and exchange of experience. The desire to acquire knowledge or better understand one’s own character and abilities are the reasons that often underpin young people’s engagement in volunteer activity and also contribute to meeting the requirements of the knowledge-based society.

4.3.2

The EESC believes that there is considerable scope for transnational cooperation and exchange of volunteers in a variety of domains (e.g. social inclusion, human needs, children and youth, sports, information, heritage protection, culture and the arts, environment, civil protection, etc.) which may enhance the European dimension of citizenship.

4.3.3

The EESC believes that the European Citizenship Initiative could also enhance cooperation among Member States, acceding countries and the countries under the European Neighbourhood Partnership Instrument (ENPI) in terms of active citizenship and sense of solidarity.

4.3.4

Volunteers can accumulate important non-formal experience and knowledge which is in demand on the labour market and build up a network of contacts. Volunteers can also acquire key competences and knowledge in areas such as publicity, communications, self-expression, social skills, management and vocational training. Voluntary activity can thus form an important part of a person’s CV and career. However the recognition of the young people’s volunteer activities and their non-formal learning needs to be ensured.

4.3.5

There are also challenges. One is the lack of legal status for volunteers. National frameworks define the volunteers’ and organisations status in the country and, to a lesser extent, abroad. There are no existing national legislative frameworks to give EVS volunteers, for example, a similar legal status.

4.3.6

Insurance and health and safety issues also need to be resolved. Adequate social protection is desirable should be guaranteed for volunteers during their service but that becomes difficult if the provisions for transnational volunteers with regard to social security differ from country to country. The EESC therefore would encourage the Commission to promote a common understanding of these issues, and urge that Member States and the appropriate institutions resolve these important questions.

4.3.7

All efforts have to be made to avoid any potential conflict as to what constitutes paid employment and what constitutes voluntary service. Therefore the differences between employees and volunteers as well as the responsibilities of volunteers, if applicable, must be clearly defined. Voluntary activity is not intended to replace employment. Cooperation with the social partners is therefore of importance.

5.   The role of the EESC and organised civil society

5.1

Organised civil society is the core sector for volunteer activity. A multitude of civil society organisations are already involved in the EVS and other European programmes. Voluntary organisations should also continue to play a vital role in a broader exchange programme.

5.2

It is a fact that non-profit and voluntary organisations are often providers of various welfare services in Europe. At the same time, participation in popular movements is, in many cases, declining. In this context, a European Citizenship Initiative could both contribute to increasing people’s participation in organised civil society and to improving organisations’ opportunities for self-development. A review and discussion of the role and position of non-profit organisations in society can bring about a change in these organisations’ specific contributions and raise awareness of the added value which they provide to society.

5.3

The European Citizenship Initiative can also contribute to a stronger and a more vibrant civil society. This will also benefit social capital, in terms of trust, less corruption, and membership of voluntary associations.

5.4

The problem of accreditation of organisations and the question of quality of the exchange has often affected civil society organisation. The EESC would encourage organised civil society in Member States and on the European level to cooperate to find common principles regarding accreditation and developing further common quality criteria. This could, where appropriate, be done in cooperation with the public administrations responsible.

5.5

The EESC is aware that this subject needs a follow-up e.g. in the form of a conference. This should include -the participation of all national services bodies, the European Commission and non-governmental organisations active in the field of either youth - or voluntary service, with the aim of promoting the development of a European Citizenship Initiative framework.

Brussels, 25 February 2009.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI


(1)  14825/08, JEUN 101.

(2)  See EESC opinion on Voluntary activity: its role in European society and its impact, rapporteur: Ms Koller (OJ C 325, 30.12.2006).

(3)  To avoid any confusion over the fact that ‘civic service’ means different things in different Member States, the EESC has used the term ‘citizenship initiative’ throughout this opinion.

(4)  See EESC opinion on Voluntary activity: its role in European society and its impact, rapporteur: Ms Koller (OJ C 325, 30.12.2006).


ANNEX

Appendix to the opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee

The following amendments were rejected, although they did receive at least a quarter of the votes cast:

Point 2.11

‘At present volunteer activities involving young people are carried out primarily through the are a priority of the open method of coordination in the framework of European Union's Youth policies' three priority strands:

encouraging participation of young people in active citizenship and civil society;

promoting voluntary activities among young people;

enhancing information addressed to young people and existing information services for young people, promoting voluntary activities among them, encouraging greater understanding and knowledge of youth.’

Voting

For: 49 Against: 69 Abstentions: 19

Point 4.3.7

‘All efforts have to be made to avoid any potential conflict as to what constitutes paid employment and what constitutes voluntary service. Therefore the differences between employees and volunteers as well as the responsibilities of volunteers, if applicable, must be clearly defined. Voluntary activity is not intended to replace employment. Cooperation with between organisations representing volunteers and the social partners is therefore of importance’.

Voting

For: 48 Against: 77 Abstentions: 23