“Don’t ask what Europe can do for you but ask what you can do for Europe!” In his speech given in February, the German president Gauck makes good use of this reference to Kennedy’s well-known inaugural address. Beyond resistance towards sometimes petty political decision-making, we need a stronger common civil society. Promising projects are under way.
Strengths and weaknesses of the civil society
Compared to the figures for national elections throughout the EU member states (about 67 percent in 2010), the turnout for the recent European parliament elections in 2009 only amounted to 43 percent (c.f. Eurostat, 2013). This poor outcome is probably due to the fact that citizens claim to not have enough information on election candidates, their affiliation to a political party and the overall way in which EU legislation is influencing daily life in the Member States (c.f. European commission, 2013). Especially considering the recent challenges of the Euro crisis, it is no wonder that opposition towards the European integration and the idea of relinquishing nation-state sovereignty is rising – and that citizens forget, as Gauck puts it, to ask what they can do for Europe. Besides participating in European elections, there are numerous ways to make a difference yourself, while at the same time developing cross-cultural understanding and standing up for common values. From grants to scholarships, from volunteer services to city partnerships, the spectrum is vast and should not pass unnoticed.
Examples of programs
An example would be the European Voluntary Service (EVS) offered through the Youth in Action program which enables motivated young people aged 18 to 30 to volunteer in projects all across Europe dealing with social, cultural or environmental issues. From religious dialogue to post-conflict rehabilitation, the projects take up various interests, making it easy to spend from two months up to a year in another European country, volunteer and help shape a young civil society that puts the ideas of mutual understanding and tolerance into action. The whole program is almost free of cost for the participants since the cost for board and lodging, insurance and allowance, as well as most of the travel costs are funded.
While programs like the EVS or the much acclaimed ERASMUS study abroad program aim at young people to help foster their sense of social cohesion, it is important to not forget the contribution of older people in our society. To critically reflect on solidarity between generations, participation in society and questions of employment and ageing of the older generation, the year 2012 has been proclaimed the “European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations”. Initiatives include conferences and public debates, workshops, training and lessons in the fields of new media, art or in the work field all across the continent. The goal is to promote lifelong learning and exchange between generations as well as to involve a diverse public.
It is important that these initiatives are acknowledged by a wider public, not only by the well-educated. Schools should raise awareness for programs such as the EVS, local clubs can apply for funding of own projects linked with the European idea. 2013 has been proclaimed the “European year of Citizens”. All these efforts should not go unnoticed, and advantages of a joint market, the Schengen zone and cross-cultural cooperation should not be taken for granted – they must be brought to life. We need this developing civil society even if the participants’ commitment to European values of freedom and diversity is not directly linked to a higher interest in politics itself.
To go further:
On Nouvelle Europe
- Dossier May 2013, Why can we still be (pro-)European today?, 9 May 2013
Alexandra Yaghil, Towards a European citizenship: the importance of civil society – Nouvelle Europe’s activities, 26 February 2013
Capucine Goyet, The ‘League of Young Voters’ in Europe, an on-going project initiated by the European Youth Forum, 6 February 2013
On the Internet
- The European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations 2012. http://europa.eu/ey2012/ey2012.jsp?langId=en
- The European Year of Citizens 2013. http://europa.eu/citizens-2013/en
- The European Voluntary Service (EVS). http://ec.europa.eu/youth/youth-in-action-programme/european-voluntary-service_en.htm
- The Erasmus program and other Lifelong Learning programs. http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-programme/erasmus_en.htm
- EU funding and grants. http://europa.eu/policies-activities/funding-grants/
- European Commission, European Parliament elections – getting out the vote. http://ec.europa.eu/news/eu_explained/130313_en.htm, March 13, 2013
- Eurostat, Election guide. http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/tgm/refreshTableAction.do?tab=table&plugin=0&pcode=tsdgo310&language=de, 2013
- Gauck, J., Speech on the prospects for the European idea. Schloss Bellevue, 22 February 2013. http://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/EN/JoachimGauck/Reden/2013/130222-Europe.html?nn=1891680, February 22, 2013
- Kennedy, J. F., Inaugural Address. http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/BqXIEM9F4024ntFl7SVAjA.aspx, January 20, 1961
Photo source: European movement Ireland. http://www.europeanmovement.ie/citizens-dialogue/