European Solidarity Corps: A real opportunity for idealistic young Europeans?

Young volunteers in 2011 Young volunteers in 2011 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The European Commission launched the European Solidarity Corps promising to help 100,000 young Europeans find placements for voluntary work and even paid jobs for between two and twelve months. However, critics warn that some quality jobs risk to be replaced by unpaid volunteering.

Solidarity has been the keystone of the European unification since its very beginning.“Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity,” reads the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950.

The future of European solidarity is in the hands of its younger generations. This year, while celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus Programme, one of the most successful initiatives of the EU, the European Commission launched the European Solidarity Corps (ESC) – a new initiative meant to empower young Europeans willing to help vulnerable people and ready to tackle societal challenges facing the continent.

Juncker’s promise

The creation of the Corps was first announced with great fanfare by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, in his 2016 State of the Union address: “We often show solidarity most readily when faced with emergencies. When the Portuguese hills were burning, Italian planes doused the flames. When floods cut off the power in Romania, Swedish generators turned the lights back on. When thousands of refugees arrived on Greek shores, Slovakian tents provided shelter. In the same spirit, the Commission is proposing today to set up a European Solidarity Corps.”

Juncker pledged that young Europeans should be able to find a job within four months after having completed their training or studies.

In yet another announcement, made when he took office almost three years ago, Mr. Juncker pledged then that young Europeans should be able to find a job within four months after having completed their training or studies. Is it thus possible that the Commission sees the Solidarity Corps as a way of lowering youth unemployment, in addition to improving the practical training of young adults and broadening their understanding of the Union.

100,000 young Europeans to join the ESC by 2020

The initiative was officially launched in December 2016. Eight different EU programmes and funds – Erasmus+, Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI), LIFE, Asylum and Migration Fund, Health, Europe for Citizens, European Regional Development Fund, Agricultural Fund for Rural Development – were mobilised to offer volunteering, traineeship and job opportunities.

In the current phase, the ESC is financed and managed by these eight programmes and their funds, but once the draft regulation presented on May 30, 2017 enters into force, the solidarity initiative will have its own legal basis and budget and will be implemented by the European Commission, the Erasmus+ National Agencies in the Member States and the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA).

On May 30, the Commission consolidated the initiative by proposing a budget of more than €340 million for the next three years. According to its plans, 80 percent of this budget will be dedicated to volunteering activities and the remaining 20 percent to job placement.

The draft Regulation presented by the Commission not only endows the European Solidarity Corps with its own financial resources, but also equips it with one single legal base and a broader set of solidarity activities. Adoption by the European Parliament and the Council is expected by the end of this year. The declared objective is to enable 100,000 young Europeans to take part in the Solidarity Corps till the end of 2020.

So far, more than 30,000 young people have signed up and the first participants have already started their placements.

How does it work?

The new initiative offers young Europeans between 18 and 30 years of age the opportunity to do voluntary / unpaid or, on some occasions, paid work in their own country, somewhere else in the EU, or in Norway, Lichtenstein, Iceland, Turkey and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Applicants can choose among volunteering activities for up to 12 months, traineeship placements for 2–6 months, or job placements for 2–12 months. The new draft Regulation also offers EU youth the opportunity to set up their own solidarity projects or to volunteer as a group.

The ESC supports a vast variety of projects that touch on some key societal challenges facing the EU. For instance, applicants can work with people with disabilities, deal with minority groups such as Roma, help in the reception and integration of refugees and migrants, support communities to recover after natural disasters and teach foreign languages.

All those participating in a project covered by the ESC will receive at the end of their experience a certificate that documents their engagement. The ESC brings together two complementary strands: volunteering and occupational. Those who decide to volunteer will not receive a wage, but will still be entitled to lodging, food and pocket money. A subsistence allowance will be provided also to those doing a traineeship, while participants that are recruited for a job will get a formal labour contract.

Anyone who is looking for a traineeship, or has been unable to find a job after completing their studies, is invited to register with the ESC on a dedicated website, indicating their preferred type from one of the three categories mentioned above and location of placement. Applicants are also asked about language skills, education and special abilities. There are no special requirements and, in this regard, also untrained school dropouts are free to apply. Once registered, they can be contacted by organisations interested in offering a placement.

These organisations are invited by the European Commission to apply for funding or for other support for projects, which fit the Mission and Principles of the initiative. Once their projects are approved, they can access the pool of participants to select the young people that could best contribute to those projects.

A déjà vu feeling?

The idea of European volunteering draws from successful international experiences, like the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) and the US Peace Corps.

The UNV is a UN programme that was established in 1970 and mobilises more than 7,700 volunteers every year. UN volunteers are active around 130 countries and receive a financial allowance to cover basic living expenses. Minimum age to participate in the programme is 25 years, while there is no upper age limit.

The US Peace Corps, on the other hand, was founded in 1961 by President J.F. Kennedy, and aims at helping people outside the US to understand American culture and helping Americans to understand the culture of other countries. Volunteers are American citizens who engage themselves to work abroad for a period of two years.

In Europe, the predecessor of the ESC is the European Voluntary Service (EVS), which was established in 1998. This program, which is still in place, is funded by the European Commission and enables young people resident in the EU, between 18 and 30 years of age, to carry out an international volunteer service in Europe, Africa, Asia or South America for a period from 2 to 12 months. Volunteers receive reimbursement of travel expenses and coverage of the costs of food and accommodation.

According to Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, the ESC will be “an EVS +” with more funding available and a new “one-stop shop” portal. Commenting on the fact that 100,000 people volunteered with the EVS in the last 20 years – the same amount that the Commission aims to reach by 2020 with the ESC – the Commissioner said: “We have to admit that the European Voluntary Service has not been very successful”.

He added that “the European Solidarity Corps will now cover the 28 EU member states”, while the EVS will survive for projects outside of the EU.

Good intentions, potentially bad outcomes?

One cannot but praise the Commission’s stated goal to help 100,000 young Europeans willing to serve a good cause and find a temporary position, be it paid or unpaid. Nevertheless, not everybody is enthusiastic about this new initiative.

The initiative does not provide a clear distinction between volunteering activities and job placements.

Jutta Steinruck, MEP, S&D Group spokesperson on employment and social affairs, points out: “What we need the most today is to create new high-quality jobs, training and apprenticeships for young people. The initiative, however, does not provide a clear distinction between volunteering activities and job placements. We find this troubling, as we fear that through this initiative paid jobs would be replaced by unpaid volunteering. We must make sure that this does not happen.”

Marian Harkin, MEP of the ALDE group, echoed the same concern during a debate with Mr. Navracsics: “How can we make a clear distinction between the volunteering and the occupational strand? What criteria do you intend to use, Mr. Commissioner? How can we ensure that there are no abuses in the system and that young, energetic, idealistic young Europeans do not find themselves in the fringes of precarious work?”

Other MEPs focused on the importance of avoiding duplications with existing programs: “There should be no competition between the ESC and the already existing EVS, which made a good service to those young people willing to engage themselves in volunteering activities,” warned Sabine Verheyen, MEP (EPP).

This concern is shared also by the other side of the political spectrum, like the Italian Curzio Maltese (GUE/NGL), who said that “the Commission should remove many ambiguities and dangers from this proposal […]. These are the risks of making duplications [with existing programs] and offering a new instrument to exploit youth workforce.”

The Corps should not be seen as a fake solution to tackle youth unemployment, creating precarious working conditions instead of quality jobs.

The European Youth Forum (EYF) expressed similar concerns. Luis Alvarado, president of the EYF, commented: “Great to see EU institutions putting the spotlight on volunteering. To make the Solidarity Corps a success, though, it is vital to put youth organisations in the driving seat! Also, when it comes to the occupational strand of the Corps, this should not be seen as a fake solution to tackle youth unemployment, creating precarious working conditions instead of quality jobs for young people.

The Commission thus faces an uphill battle. It will not be an easy task to ensure that the initiative is properly funded and that quality jobs are not replaced by unpaid volunteering. The viability and legitimacy of the European Solidarity Corps depends on the fulfilment of these two conditions. Otherwise, good intentions will inevitably lead to bad outcomes.

Matteo Angeli

Matteo Angeli is a journalist working for several Italian media outlets. He is based in Strasbourg, where he also works as communications manager for the European Parliamentary Association. Moreover, he is ghostwriter for a Member of the European Parliament. He covers primarily French, German, Italian and EU politics.

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