The real thing, and the European Commission version
Mike Lacey is a County Councillor in Derbyshire, representing Newhall & Seales. Over the years he’s built up a successful local haulage business, Lacey Freight, now run by his son Ian. Mike and Ian and their family are actively engaged in volunteering. Concerned about poverty and living conditions in Belarus, and the care of children affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, they have raised funds to support the Chernobyl Children’s Project. Each year for twenty years or so they have filled one of their company trucks in Derbyshire with materials for the project, and sent it across Europe to Belarus, often with Ian Lacey as lead driver. Find them (and donate!) at www.chernobyl-children.org.uk.
Their activities include supporting children with cancer and other disabilities, organising recuperative holidays (see the picture above), together with humanitarian, training and educational work. This strikes me as a shining example of “Cross Border Volunteering”, about which the European Commission is starting to worry.
The Commission has come up with a draft report, currently under consideration by the parliament’s Unemployment Committee, on which I sit. But clearly the Commission sees volunteering in a very different light from the likes of Mike and Ian Lacey. For the Brussels apparatchiks, volunteering is not a voluntary, bottom-up, charitable activity. Rather, it’s one more top-down activity, to be controlled, and regulated, and bureaucratised. The Commission calls for a “clear legal framework, reinforcing Union Citizenship and putting citizens at the heart of EU policy” (my, how the clichés are flowing!). They want to “recognise volunteering as a form of learning and therefore a priority of EU action in education and training”. There’s talk of integrating “voluntary work experience and skills acquired into the European Skills Passport”. I daresay you’ve never heard of the European Skills Passport (hands up anyone who has one?), but it exists nonetheless. And they want “to develop it into a European Volunteering Card”. Funny how Ian Lacey has managed to get his convoys to Belarus all these years without a European Volunteering Card!
Of course all these Commission proposals need money in these straightened times. They already have an “intranet web-site” (not available to the public) and they’re calling for funding for pilot projects, encouraging Member States to get more involved. Many taxpayers may feel that this is not the best time to be calling for more spending by the Commission, and I for one shall vote against. You might even conclude that activity requiring EU funding was not strictly “volunteering” at all. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems to me that volunteering should be voluntary.
The torrent of clichés is terrifying. Volunteering must be “ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable’. It fosters “solidarity, active citizenship & inter-cultural learning, strengthening social cohesion”. It contributes to “social inclusion, social innovation and poverty reduction” as well as “solidarity between generations”. It “contributes to GDP growth” (heaven knows how). It “contributes to active ageing in terms of vitality and dignity in all phases of life”. We must ensure that volunteering “involves a diverse range of participants”. And they call for “financial support for the infrastructure of volunteering”. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
I commend those like Ian Lacey who have chosen to do charity work across borders. I respect those of my parliamentary colleagues like Emma McClarkin MEP (East Midlands) who have gone to poor African countries to help build schools and clinics. But cross-border volunteering in the EU generally? I asked about this in committee and I was assured that there are people in Italy who want to go to Sweden to volunteer, believe it or not. But surely the overwhelming bulk of volunteering is local — it’s the local Rotary Club raising money for charity; it’s standing by the supermarket in the snow and holding out the collecting tin for the local hospice; it’s fund-raising for a new scanner at the local hospital. As an MEP, I have never once had a constituent come to me to say that they wanted to do cross-border volunteering, and needed Brussels to provide a framework and funding to help them to do so.
But one phrase above all gives the game away. The Commission’s real objective is quite simply to break down national identities and to promote the project of European integration: “By promoting cross-border volunteering in cooperation with Member States, and through EU funding programmes, the EU contributes to the mobility and inter-cultural learning of its citizens and reinforces a European identity“. Just so.