The birthday party of European Voluntary Service on 26-27 November 2006 in Brussels
180 guests attended the event organised by the European Commission (DG Education and Culture) to celebrate the 10th anniversary of European Voluntary Service under the motto: "10 years of solidarity and active citizenship". Almost 100 former volunteers were among them as well as EVS sending, host and coordinating institutions, national youth ministries, representatives of YOUTH National Agencies and many more stakeholders. Thanks to the participation of Members of the European Parliament, Commissioner Ján Figel' and Commission Vice President Margot Wallström the event had a marked political profile. A truly global dimension was introduced by Mr. Ad de Raad, executive coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers.
During the welcome party on Sunday evening at the Bazaar Club in Brussels, participants had the opportunity to get acquainted, dance and surprise each other with little gifts typical for their countries. They started sharing an impressive range of experiences and emotions and it became clear throughout the event that EVS has had a lasting positive impact on the young people and organisations involved in EVS. Changed attitudes, important orientations, new competencies, new partnerships and friendships are direct effects of EVS. Access to higher education and future jobs often has been easier for former volunteers. A volunteer summarised it: "EVS is not just the end, but the beginning!" Participants told about their projects in other European countries and the world. After the activity abroad, the involvement in structures of former EVS volunteers or the support of sending organisations helped many of them to cope with the difficulty to get back to "normal life" after EVS.
After a press-breakfast and the presentation of a newly produced short film on EVS, which can be downloaded from the website www.celebrateEVS.eu , Commissioner Ján Figel' opened the morning plenary session on 27 November. He gave a clear message that EVS is one of the best instruments to nurture our sense of humanity and solidarity. It also is a great tool to learn and discover one's talents. Mr. Figel' also described the Commission's ambitions to enhance the recognition of competencies acquired through non-formal learning (Europass-Youth, Youthpass) and hinted at the strong multiplier effects that EVS has and which go much beyond the individual participant. He showed himself impressed about the broad variety of projects, experiences and good wishes for the future. He left no doubt that Europe needs young people in shaping our societies, our Europe and our world and that voluntary service is a truly rewarding way to achieve this. In this context he also underlined the Commission's interest in having a true dialogue with young people. He finally expressed his hope that the celebration contributes to making more and more organisations, decision-makers and young people aware of the importance of voluntary activities and to promoting them where possible. Mr. Figel' underlined the intention of establishing a partnership between the Commission and the United Nations Volunteers to enhance volunteering. When personally asked in which field he would like to do a voluntary service, Mr. Figel' stated that he would be most interested in joining other volunteers in environmental rehabilitation.
Afterwards, two panel discussion, animated in a very professional and youth-oriented way by Annabelle Van Nieuwenhuyse, led participants through the journey from the first steps of EVS to the future perspectives.
Mr. Jaakko Weuro, vice-president of the European Youth Forum, highlighted the long tradition and broad landscape of volunteering and voluntary service in Europe and called the creation of EVS 10 years ago "a little revolution" because for the first time the importance of voluntary service and the values behind were recognised and supported at EU level. He also stressed positively the accessibility of EVS for all young people and that EVS has helped shaping new approaches and structures to support and recognise volunteering and youth work. But he also stated that some might wonder if the full-funding approach for EVS volunteers was not contrary to the concept of volunteering. Finally he stressed the manifold persisting mobility obstacles (e.g. lack of volunteer status, visa problems, etc.) and the need to fight for "freedom of movement" for volunteers.
Andreas Schwab (International Cultural Youth Exchange) described the positive influence EVS has had on his organisation in terms of expanding the geographic scope of their usual voluntary activities, building up new partnerships, launching thematic campaigns across Europe, and reaching out for the first time to young people with fewer opportunities.
Babette Nieder, former member of cabinet of Edith Cresson, told how the initial idea of creating an EVS was born and how it gained more and more support in the Commission, the European Parliament, the European Youth Forum and also in European capitals and civil society – the latter thanks to the commitment of the former EU administrator in Mostar, Hans Koschnik.
Anki Pulliainen described her EVS experience in Burkina Faso and the subsequent activities with volunteers from her host community as a marking experience of her life, not without problems but very rich in terms of personal benefit. Her studies of development cooperation and her new job in an NGO had been positively influenced by her EVS. She warned that the abstract word of intercultural learning often clashes with reality, but that one grows out of such an intense experience. She appealed to conceive the future EVS also more for the building of Europe and the benefits of societies.
Nuno Oliveira pointed at the very intense experience that EVS had on him and the difficulty to describe it in words.
Ms. Odile Quintin, Director-General of DG Education and Culture, underlined the significance of EVS in giving a concrete expression to the values of solidarity and active citizenship. It is an excellent tool for non-formal learning. She stressed that EVS helps young people to integrate into society as well as into the labour market. "By helping young volunteers to develop all their potential, EVS ensures a direct contribution to a Europe of knowledge. It therefore has become an element of the Community Lisbon programme for growth and jobs". She then presented the new European Voluntary Service, which will be launched as a part of the new Youth in Action Programme 2007-2013. The new EVS will be more effective and have an even stronger impact thanks to an extended age range, a systematic possibility for group EVS activities, new management modalities, a larger geographical scope and a high degree of accessibility for people with fewer opportunities. Finally she situated EVS in the political context of the cooperation among Member States in the field of youth and concluded with the question: "Why not doing more at European level to support politically more voluntary service at European and national levels?"
Ms. Lissy Gröner (Member of the European Parliament) welcomed the intention to expand European Voluntary Service from 2007 on, but said that even if we are on the right way, we need more budget for European youth programmes and more efforts to tackle mobility obstacles. She highlighted the importance of the European Youth Week to raise awareness on youth issues among policy makers.
Ms. Erika Koller (European Economic and Social Committee) presented the draft exploratory opinion of the Committee, which she called a "very demanding paper" to the Commission. Among the different proposals, she highlighted notably the idea of a White Paper on volunteering, a national legal and political framework that recognises volunteering and the need to make school pupils aware of the volunteering opportunities. She called on the Commission to introduce new possibilities for other age groups of volunteers and to simplify procedures. According to her, there is also a need for more data on the impact and value of volunteering and to recognise volunteering better. She concluded by recommending a more systematic promotion of volunteering on the occasion of 5 December – International Volunteer Day.
Ms. Quintin answered by confirming the intention to simplify procedures and considered it as a good idea to use the International Volunteer Day more systematically. She also expressed the Commission's openness to expand initiatives on volunteering and the intention to consult with stakeholders on this.
Mr. Ad de Raad (United Nations Volunteers) pointed out that UNV and Commission will soon establish a more strategic partnership to promote volunteering and highlighted at the ongoing positive cooperation since 2001. He warned that volunteering is "not just something nice, but that it is essential for securing peace and to collectively achieve the Millennium Development Goals". He hinted at the huge potential of local volunteers everywhere in the world and the need for policy support. He then called out to former EVS volunteers: "You have become part of a fantastic global force!"
Pawel Slowikowski talked about the activities of organisations of former EVS volunteers and underlined their importance to keep the EVS spirit alive, to maintain lasting networks, acquire new competencies and develop new activities together. He also appreciated that sometimes these organisations are being consulted by policy-makers in a national context. He put forward the idea, shared by many former volunteers, to create a European association of former EVS volunteers as an umbrella of existing national ex-EVS organisations.
Ms. Quintin answered to this: "Try to pull the national organisations together and you will get our support!" Also Ms. Gröner confirmed that the European Parliament would support this and proposed also to consider an intergenerational dimension in this context.
Mr. Massimiliano Viatore (president of AVSO) launched an appeal to organise another European conference to bring existing or emerging national civic services closer together and let them exchange information and best practice and to cooperate among each other.
After the lunch break different topics related to EVS and volunteering were tackled in 12 "table discussions" by small groups. Each topic was introduced by a "table manager", an expert in the respective field, who also guided through the discussions. A rapporteur presented the results of each table to the plenary. During these presentations, it became clear, among others, that the Commission's proposals for an expanded and modernised EVS were largely appreciated. Some concerns were voiced in relation to the lower volunteer allowance and the broader age limits, which might increase the risk of job substitution. The promotion of EVS was seen as an important task for the future.
Commission Vice President Margot Wallström listened to the reports from the discussion groups and then made a statement in which she expressed her gratitude towards former volunteers for their commitment. She emphasized that the significance of voluntary service lies in its promotion of democracy, respect, mutual understanding, diversity and social cohesion. "It also makes sure that Europe is not only a complex network of institutions and markets, but that it gives it a human and spiritual face. EVS touches people's minds and it is the best proof that the EU is not concerned only with economics", stated the Commissioner. She then asked: "Why should only young people benefit from a European programme that supports voluntary service? Why not other age groups as well?" She also announced a Eurobarometer opinion poll on voluntary service. "Despite of budgetary constraints, money must be spent on infrastructure! Bridges that link people and communities!" She confirmed that Commissioner Figel' and herself would be looking forward to develop voluntary service and EVS in particular. "We hope to make it a second Erasmus – an Erasmus of solidarity!"
In his closing speech, Pierre Mairesse, Director for youth, sport and relations with the citizen, DG Education and Culture, European Commission, called volunteering and solidarity two faces of the same coin. He highlighted the mutual advantages both for Europe and for those who are engaged in volunteering. He thanked participants for all the fresh ideas emerging from the discussions. He underlined that EVS and the EU's approach to volunteering is not static but constantly developing and further improvements are in sight. "We believe in EVS and are proud of it!"
More information on the event and EVS, the reports from the table discussions, photos and the EVS film are available on: www.celebrateEVS.eu
Extracts from the "birthday wishes" of participants:
"I hope it lasts forever and remains intense, challenging, rewarding and fun!"
(E. Wasylew - EVS volunteer in Kosovo).
"I wish all the young people in the world to have the opportunity to experience what I experienced in my EVS" (J. Petan – EVS volunteer in Scotland).
"I wish that EVS touches even more people's hearts and lives!"
K. Joost (EVS volunteer in Austria)
"The action is immensely valuable and provides opportunities to many young people who would otherwise not get the chance to travel and experience other cultures"
(K. Rice – EVS volunteer in England).
"Keep on growing up and up and up!" (M. Velina – EVS volunteer in France)
"Hopefully not only in Europe, but in Asia, Africa, South America!" (M. Claudiu – EVS volunteer in Kosovo)
"It's a good way for youth to get a real sentiment of the European community (citizenship)" (P. Montalbaut – EVS volunteer in Portugal)
"I really dream that every young person in Europe will pass through this experience!" (S. Krastev – EVS volunteer in Spain)
"Keep on moving and changing Europe!" (S. Rosenitsch, Austria)
"I do believe that the Youth Programme and EVS in particular are crucial for the future of the European Union". (Y. Ors – EVS volunteer in Estonia).