European Solidarity Corps caught in contradictions

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Young volunteer holds baby girl, stock photo. [Shutterstock]

In September 2016, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker unexpectedly announced the creation of a European Solidarity Corps. A welcome proposal, but it has been hijacked for enhancing employability instead of focusing on personal development, writes Florian Sanden.

Florian Sanden is the head of the European Office of Catholic Youth Work and Adult Education.

According to Juncker, the Solidarity Corps should enable young people to volunteer to help in crisis-situations like the refugee crisis or the earthquakes in Italy. Thereby the young people would reinforce solidarity in Europe, improve their skills and collect work and human experience.

In the regulatory proposal on the Solidarity Corps, published in May 2017, the Commission services had translated the president´s idea into legislation by inventing a new duality between volunteering and employment support.

The European Solidarity Corps, commonly abbreviated ESC, is sketched out as a two-tier programme containing a volunteer strand and an occupational strand. The volunteer strand is intended to offer traditional voluntary placements for young people, while the occupational strand will fund job placements and traineeships.

The regulatory proposal reserves 80% of the ESC funds for the voluntary programme while the remaining 20% is reserved for the occupational strand.

Not-for-profit providers of voluntary services across Europe welcome and appreciate the ESC initiative. However, the new and “innovative” combination of volunteering and employment support under one legislative roof is highly problematic and adds on to other problems within the regulatory proposal: these are the prominent references to employability or entrepreneurship as programme objectives or the admission of for-profit entities to the programme.

The uneasiness of the not-for-profit sector with the Commission´s plans stems from fundamental differences regarding the objectives of a voluntary programme. Traditionally, voluntary programmes were created to offer young citizens an opportunity to dedicate a certain period of time to contributing to the common good.

Covering basic living expenses like food and accommodation and providing a small monetary compensation, voluntary programmes ensure that volunteers are free from the necessity to pursue monetary profits and can focus all their energy on their solidarity activity.

Voluntary placements are typically provided by not-for-profit entities like charities, sports associations, religious organisations or public entities. For a period of up to one year volunteers work in a designated area within their hosting organisations.

Tasks assigned to volunteers can range from simple manual tasks like helping in the kitchen of a homeless shelter to more complex tasks like the management of a youth group in a church community.

To foster a process of learning and reflection, voluntary programmes are usually embedded in an educational programme, consisting of preparatory, accompanying and de-briefing seminars. In these seminars experienced tutors with a background in pedagogics invite the volunteers to discuss the experiences from their placements and to reflect on what those experiences can teach them.

Young volunteers appreciate voluntary services that exist in countries like France, Italy or Germany especially for the provision of “open spaces”, allowing them to develop their personalities, broaden their horizon and encounter experiences different from the later working life.

The Commission proposal to direct the European Solidarity Corps to the goal of improving participants’ employability and the provision of traineeships and jobs through the ESC follows a wider trend.

In recent years, the “employability objective” has been introduced to several national voluntary schemes across Europe. This trend risks curtailing open spaces for young people, which over the years were strenuously constructed.

The personal development and employability objectives are fundamentally distinct from each other. Personal development requires freedom to explore without facing the risk to miss deadlines or attainment goals. It also requires time for reflection about fundamental questions: Who am I and what do I want from life?

Improving ones´ employability means training in a certain skill set in a focused, disciplined manner. Participants are often subjected to rigorous schemes and sacrifice some of their freedom for the attainment of a well-defined educational objective.

In the last decade, formal education in Europe has moved away from a holistic approach to education, centred on guiding a person in unfolding their talents and more towards the employability objective. Moving from a paradigm in which the requirements and needs of the person are the focus of attention, to a setting centred on labour market requirements, might facilitate the job search for some. For many others, it creates new problems.

It is clear that the objectives of personal development and employability are to some extent opposites to each other and should be separated in educational and youth policies. Voluntary services are one of the last strongholds of the person-centred approach, which is vital to the long-term success of our societies.

More and more studies in behavioural and educational psychology show that personal development is a precondition for educational attainment and job success and has to be nurtured in settings different from the ones required for employability.

It follows that merging voluntary services and employment promotion into one single programme, the European Solidarity Corps, is not a wise choice. In establishing the ESC the EU has the big chance to send a strong signal against the trend of ever more market-focused youth policies in Europe.

By deleting the occupational strand and the employability objective from the ESC, the EU can send a strong signal that Europe is a place that provides open spaces to its young people and pursues holistic youth policies.

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