What are lobbyists up to while politicians are out campaigning for the EU elections? What does a non-profit lobbying organisation do? Why are refugees a priority item on the European volunteering agenda? Meet Gabriella Civico, Director of the European Volunteer Centre.

Spring is blossoming in Brussels as only a few weeks remain to EU elections. While politicians are busy campaigning, officials try to wrap up work from the expiring electoral term. But what about the third piece in the machinery of EU politics: the lobbyists?

– The Elections mean that there are less meetings with politicians, particularly MEPs and their staff in Brussels. We have a higher focus on supporting our member organisations in bringing in the topic of volunteering to the European elections, says Gabriella Civico, Director of the European Volunteer Centre (CEV).

– The work with the European Commission and the Member States to bring the European Solidarity Corps (a new EU project to engage youth in civic activities) into full implementation, and similar work in progress, does however continue as normal.

Not for self-interest

CEV is the umbrella organisation for European volunteer organisations, such as Citizen Forum in Finland. As such, its job is to advocate the interests of volunteering in the EU institutions: the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council.

Many people perceive interest advocacy, or lobbying, as obscure backdoor politics of big businesses buying off politicians. Gabriella Civico does not endorse this view for CEV’s part.

– We would in fact differentiate between an advocacy organisation, such as we consider CEV to be, and those that lobby to increase their own or somebody else’s profits, she says.

– Lobby organisations, in general, seek to maximize the profits of certain individuals or of a whole commercial sector, such as the oil industry.  Advocacy organisations seek policy change in order to defend the rights and well-being of others, and in that sense act in the common interest of society.

In practice, CEV’s advocacy work means to a great extent informing policy makers, the public, and other actors about volunteering issues. In this way, it seeks to improve the political and legal framework for volunteers and their organisations across Europe.

– There is a lack of understanding among the majority of policy makers, and also people involved in the volunteering sector itself, about the real value of volunteering. Lack of awareness and appreciation of the actions of civil society and of volunteering remains our biggest barrier with policymakers at the European level, says Civico.

Functioning politics require coordination

Another problem for volunteering in Europe is weak policy coordination. Volunteering cuts across several sectors in society, and efficient policies require many different national and EU-level decision makers to be involved. But the political leadership is fragmented. In some member states, volunteering falls under Home Affairs, in others under youth, culture or sports policy areas. This means that all responsible ministers from each member state may never meet, which complicates keeping things together and hinders good policy making.

There are also significant differences between EU member states in, for example, the funding of volunteering, the space allowed for civil society to act, and the recognition and rewarding of volunteering. CEV thinks we need more knowledge on these differences in order for things to improve.

– A large part of our work is focused on advocating for systemic collection of data on volunteering across the EU in order to inform future, better evidence-based policies.  This lack of robust comparative evidence is one of the major obstacles for an enabling environment for volunteering in Europe, says Gabriella Civico.

Vote to support volunteering

During the next electoral term, CEV will work to increase research on volunteering, secure funding for volunteering infrastructure, ensure that volunteering experience is formally recognised, and developing new EU volunteering programmes. The themes of this ‘5Rs agenda’ are entitled Real Value, Regulatory Framework, Recognition, Resources – and Refugees.

Why has work with refugees alone been singled out as a thematic priority, while the four other Rs are about improving volunteering conditions in general?

– When we identified the 5R policy priorities in 2015, the fact that volunteers were the backbone of the support being offered to people seeking asylum in Europe gave a specific focus. It was a clear example, and a visible symbol, of the importance of volunteers”, explains Gabriella Civico.

– In general, we now speak about the fifth R as being Refugees and Social Inclusion. As a policy priority, it is a reminder that if the full potential of volunteers in Europe is to be maximised, there needs to be an organisational infrastructure available to welcome, recognise and value those volunteers.

CEV’s election campaign, titled Vote Volunteer Vision, aims at strengthening the awareness and understanding of MEP candidates about volunteering issues. Meanwhile, every volunteer – every citizen – can by voting do their part in influencing the future of volunteering.

– If you are a person who cares about defending the rights of others, and realising actions of solidarity with others, and you think that those principles should be part of the way that European Union thinks and acts, then you need to vote, affirms Civico. And vote for candidates who also think that way!

Text: Anna Savolainen