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Viviane Reding : "Volunteering is a creator of human and social capital"

So it ends in a few weeks, what conclusions drawn from the European Year of Volunteering? In partnership with Sport & Citoyenneté, Touteleurope.eu publishes an interview with Viviane Reding, Vice-President responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship European Commission. Interview by Julian Jappert et Carole Ponchon.

A few months before the closing of EYV2011, what are-to your mind-its outcomes? What are the hottest issues?

Viviane Reding : The European Year of Volunteering (EYV) had four objectives: to make it easier for people to volunteer, to improve the quality of volunteering, to improve the recognition of voluntary activities and to raise awareness of the issues facing volunteers in the EU. These goals will not be met overnight. We must lay the groundwork to ensure a long-lasting and meaningful policy-making legacy at the EU, national and local levels for many years to come.

Through a series of EU-level thematic conferences, our official EYV website, our EYV Tour and many other activities at national and local level throughout the EU and beyond, we have been setting the stage to ensure that the momentum we gain in addressing the problems and challenges that volunteers are facing is not lost at the end of the Year. The EYV Tour, for example, has been successful in propelling volunteering into the media spotlight in each of the Member States.

This think tank founded in 2007 focusses on the role of sport in European societies. It publishes a quarterly review on issues related to sport and citizenship.
These activities help raise awareness about the challenges faced by the voluntary sector in the EU. Such “hot issues” are different from one country to another, but we can pick out a number of EU-wide tends:

  • For EU policy-makers, one immediate problem is that there is a lack of internationally comparable data on, and monitoring of voluntary activities in the EU Member States.

  • At the national level, it is rare for countries to have national volunteering strategies - typically because “volunteering” falls between policy-making chairs, and tends to get neglected as a distinct area for policy development. Consequently, in many countries, there is no clear legal framework for “volunteering” as such that covers things like the social insurance of volunteers, their training, etc. This is changing as a result of the Year. For example, we saw the introduction of a national law on volunteering in Lithuania in June, and similar work is in progress in Slovakia and Austria.

  • Another EU-wide hot issue is the increasing trend in the professionalization of the volunteering sector, which is causing a growing mismatch between the needs of volunteering organisations and the aspirations of volunteers. Coupled with this is the problem that skills or competences that are gained through volunteering activities are rarely recognised or formally acknowledged.

  • Furthermore, volunteering organisations have difficulties obtaining sustainable funding: due to the large increase in volunteering organisations over the past years, there is now more competition for the available funds, and the public purse is shrinking as governments cut back their public spending.

We are using the Year to promote a debate, the exchange of ideas and policy development to address these and other challenges in volunteering, especially in the context of cross-border volunteering in the EU. Of course, there is such variety in the way volunteers are defined and treated across the EU. So, much of the responsibility for change will lie with the relevant national and local authorities. But one thing is sure: the Year is proving to be a useful catalyst for that change, all across the EU.

In October, the Commission will organise a conference in Athens. What will be the main topics discussed?

VR : The European Commission is in fact organising four EU-level thematic conferences throughout the Year. The first one, dealing with issues of “recognition of volunteering” kicked off the Year in Budapest in January. The second one, in May, brought around 300 grass-roots volunteers from all over the EU to Brussels to look at a wide range of issues relevant to the individual volunteer. The third one is in Athens, and will cover issues that are important to the organisations that deal with volunteers.

Since volunteering in sport is the biggest sector for voluntary activities in the EU, the Athens conference will clearly include discussions about issues relevant to the world of sport volunteering, such as support structures for sport volunteering, or questions about the training of volunteers. The final conference, to be held in Warsaw in December, will then draw on all the discussions that have taken place throughout the Year in order to ensure continued follow-up by the relevant national authorities in addressing the issues identified. These will differ from country to country, depending on the national historical, cultural and legal context.

In this context, what could be the EU added value? What should be expected in the coming months?

VR : Each EU country has a different understanding of volunteering and how to measure it, depending on cultural attitudes, traditions and the historical context.

In this light, it is clearly for the Member States themselves to decide on the most appropriate structures, laws and administrative framework to deal with volunteering. The European Commission will not be using the Year to impose a top-down, one-size-fits-all EU-wide legislative framework for volunteering.

Rather, the European Year provides an opportunity to promote exchange, debate and policy development among the Member States and civil society organisations. In that context the European Commission is also actively exploring how EU-wide instruments can be adapted to the particularities of the world of volunteering.

For example, the Commission is developing tools to help improve the recognition of volunteering. This is essentially about promoting some form of official acknowledgement of the skills and competences that people gain outside the classroom setting, such as in the course of a voluntary activity. Whether such acknowledgement goes as far as formal recognition of such skills and competences, for example in the form of a certificate, is of course up to the relevant national authorities to decide. But with the European Qualifications Framework and the eight Key Competences for Lifelong Learning, Member States will have the tools necessary to develop the most appropriate validation method or instrument for their national context.

Volunteering is a creator of human and social capital. It is a pathway to integration and employment, and a key factor for improving social cohesion. It is also an essential element of European citizenship, as volunteers contribute to shaping European society. This is particularly important in the current economic and social climate, when solidarity amongst Europeans is paramount.

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