On the 26 and 27 June, the Volonteurope Secretariat was in Brussels en masse to attend the annual Civil Society Days – this year uniting under the slogan The Europe we strive for! Held at the European Economic and Social Committee, the two days focused on four themes: populism, and how to develop a counter-narrative through education and culture; technological revolution, transforming work, minds and society; empowerment of civil society organisations, rights and the shrinking space for civil society; and the urban and rural dimension, moving towards more social and territorial cohesion. Furthermore, in 2017, Europe is also celebrating 60 years since the Treaty of Rome, making this year’s Civil Society Days – in which themes such as the stability of the union and the threats of populism will be discussed – particularly significant.
The conference was opened with a stirring speech from Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, on Global Europe and its role in peace and stability. Her speech addressed the clear and important role played by migrants in Europe – as she stated “We need migration for economic and cultural reasons,” and that “sectors of the economy in Europe would collapse if all migrants were to disappear.” Furthermore, she highlighted the important role that civil society organisations need to play in increasing and facilitating political participation. She said that in 2017 “we have seen the world has turning towards the EU looking for stability,” and in light of this, it’s important to be cognisant of the fact that when you invest in a “strong civil society, you invest in stability and growth.” Just the sort of sentiments a room full of representatives from civil society organisations from all over Europe, as well as volunteers and private citizens involved in humanitarian and charity causes, are keen to hear. Federica Mogherini’s keynote prompted much discussion and interesting follow-up questions, and really created quite a buzz of excitement for the sessions that followed.
Volonteurope, along with Culture Action Europe and European Civic Forum, were attending the conference to convene the third workshop on the Monday afternoon – Challenging right-wing populism: The role of civic engagement, education and culture. The afternoon session was structured around an opening introduction from Alexandrina Najmowicz of European Civic Forum, and a panel debate moderated by Katherine Heid of Culture Action Europe. We heard from Juana Bengoa (Alianza por la Solidaridad, Spain; also a Volonteurope Board Member), Duje Prkut (GONG Croatia) and Yamam Alo-Zubaidi (Riksteatern, Sweden) in a lively discussion covering the importance of community cohesion, civic education and culture in combatting right-wing populism.
Following the panel were three breakout sessions which provided practical examples illustrating the role of civic engagement, community cohesion and volunteering, education and culture on combatting populism and its root causes. We were joined by Volonteurope members Gemeinsam leben und lernen in Europa (GLL), from Germany; Yannik Stefani, Luca Scholz and Amjad Abu Huwaij presented the work they do to improve community cohesion in Passau, Bavaria. Marta Lempart, of the Polish Women’s Strike (the Black Monday protest opposing the abortion ban in Poland – winner of the European Citizenship Award for Citizens’ Initiative of the year 2017) spoke about how the Women’s Strike came about and gathered momentum; and Clymene Christoforou showcased the work of ISIS Arts, based in the UK, which uses art to capture and tell the stories that unite us.
I attended GLL’s workshop session, in which they gave an overview of their techniques for connecting with young people in schools in Passau on topics such as the refugee crisis, integration and racism. Yannik, Luca and Amjad explained how their work aims to put a human face on the struggles faced by refugees, especially in terms of integrating into small towns in Germany. Amjad spoke of the difficulties of integrating as a refugee – how German society expects and demands that you integrate, yet having a non-German name made being considered for jobs difficult. He, as well as Luca and Yannik, stressed how important it is, and has been for him, that refugees are given opportunities to volunteer in the communities they end up living in. They suggested that this volunteering, as well as their projects in schools, were valuable tools for promoting community cohesion, increasing understanding between cultures, and also combatting populism, and they called it a project based on ideas of xenophilia, as opposed to xenophobia.
From each workshop, a number of recommendations were gathered, ready to be presented at the close of the conference the next day. You can see a round-up of the two days’ events here, as well as the demands that came out of the workshops, seminars and discussions.
We had a wonderful, if exhausting two days at the Civil Society Days, and took away a lot of ideas and excitement about how to work to combat creeping populism. For me, in particular, it was great to spend time with Yannik, Luca and Amjad, and learn about the volunteering they are doing in and around Passau, and the impact it’s having on the local community – especially school-age children. It’s something I repeat often in blogs, but being able to combine events and trips abroad with learning more about our members is incredibly worthwhile – it strengthens us as a network, and means that the Secretariat is much better placed to facilitate connections between member organisations, and helps us better understand the policy and advocacy needs of them too.
Rosalind Duignan-Pearson, Volonteurope Communications and Network Development Coordinator