25 stories told by 25 active citizens

Active citizenship is the glue that keeps society together. Democracy doesn’t function properly without it, because effective democracy is more than  just placing a mark on a voting slip. 

You can read here 25 examples of how our members engage in active citizenship and get an idea how you can act as well!

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Get up and get active!

23 Jul 2012 By: Anna Maria Darmanin 0 Posts

Active citizenship is a broad concept, hard to define, and yet crucial to the welfare of society and its members. Many people, when asked, will say it is about ‘giving something back’, about recognising that we are all mutually dependent and that by making a positive contribution to the direction society takes, we are helping ourselves as well as others.

In a democratic society, all individuals and groups have the right to participate in democratic practices and institutions. That seems to imply a responsibility to ensure that no one is excluded. It could be argued that active citizenship is all about balancing rights and responsibilities. But whereas rights can be set out in lists and charters, responsibilities are more difficult to enumerate.

A catalogue of the activities that could qualify as active citizenship would be wide-ranging and extensive, and together they build a healthy, participative democracy. They cover voting and standing for election, teaching and learning, donating to good causes, recycling and caring for the environment, campaigning and volunteering. They may take place in a professional, political or personal context. They can be on an international scale, or simply target the neighbour next door.

One thing is certain: that active citizenship is crucial to society at all levels and for many reasons – bringing political, social, cultural and individual benefits, to name just a few.

Active citizenship is central to the role of the European Economic and Social Committee. In this book, 24 EESC members talk about their personal contribution, as business people and trade unionists, campaigners and volunteers, revealing a vast and fascinating range of different interests and priorities. What they all have in common is that they express a sense of solidarity with others in society, and concern for their welfare.

Society’s glue

Active citizenship is the glue that keeps society together, because if everyone merely focused on going to work, earning a living, and promoting their own individual interests, society would fall apart. It brings together people of different generations and different backgrounds, forging a solidarity that – as life expectancy grows by the year – is becoming increasingly important for the long-term welfare of European society.

It is also a form of literacy, because it implies being aware of what is happening around us, acquiring knowledge and understanding so as to make informed judgements, and having the skill and courage to respond in the appropriate way, individually or collectively. Active citizenship embodies the conviction that every individual can make a difference to the community he or she lives in – whether that means the local, national or global community.

True active citizenship is underpinned by a set of fundamental values that includes respect for the rule of law, democracy, justice, tolerance and open­mindedness, and regard for the rights and freedoms of others. 

Consequently, it makes a very important contribution to fostering social cohesion. In its 2010 opinion on ‘Integration and the Social Agenda’, the EESC draws attention to the way increasing the civic, cultural and political participation of immigrants – in other words, promoting their active citizenship – can help to accelerate their integration. But it is not just people from different ethnic communities who can find common cause in active citizenship. It helps to break down differences and misunderstandings, and build solidarity between rich and poor, weak and strong, people from diverse social backgrounds, and especially between diff erent generations.

Social awareness at an early age

Indeed, the EESC has consistently underlined how active citizenship can help draw children and young people into society and make them feel part of a wider community. The Committee has put forward specific proposals designed to reinforce the relationship between organised civil society and schools. In its opinion on ‘Voluntary Activity: its role in European society and its impact’, it urges: “In primary education, more attention must be paid to educational activities aimed at developing social awareness and involvement in solving social problems of general interest. Practical activities could be provided as an option for young people, to encourage them to carry out important and useful voluntary activities.” Teaching active citizenship in schools is vital, but equally important in fostering a sense of social solidarity is the education youngsters receive at home.

In 2011, in its opinion on the ‘Youth on the Move’ initiative, the Committee reiterates the need for “instruments promoting youth participation in society”. In this context, the EESC has swung into action itself, organising since 2010 the ‘Your Europe, Your Say!’ initiative. Every year, the Committee works through schools across the EU to bring together 100 pupils and teachers, in Brussels, to take part in a simulated EESC plenary session. The students learn not only how to formulate policy and argue their case, but they also get to know their contemporaries in other European countries, encouraging a broader understanding and a lifelong sense of fellowship. “We must promote active citizenship and specifically volunteering as a natural part of our lives, already from childhood. Supporting good habits among young people in this sense is crucial,” says Pavel Trantina from the Czech Republic, rapporteur of this opinion.

The EESC has already pointed out that active citizenship strengthens the “social capital” of both individuals and communities, through building social networks, contacts and mutual trust, and contributing to social and economic development.

Participation and rebels with a cause

The EU is a parliamentary democracy, where citizens elect their representatives in the European Parliament. But as Dana Štechová, from the Czech Republic, points out, active citizenship is about more than casting a vote every few years. The EESC embodies another, parallel but equally important model: participative democracy, which encourages people to be active on their own behalf. “Cultivating participative democracy is a task that is never fi nished,” argues Ms Štechová in her interview. “It is important to stop those forces who would like to take over too much power, often also at the expense of the most vulnerable in society and in contradiction to European values. We sometimes forget to underline the fundamental principles of the EU: peace, solidarity, social justice and a decent life. They are big words, but I believe in them. It is important to remember these principles and be always vigilant in defending them.”

A well-functioning participative democracy is a two-way street. It draws on the input of individuals, groups and organisations, and in turn it encourages and empowers people to become more engaged, when they realise that they can make a difference. Through their ongoing dialogue with civil society, EESC members help citizens to find out more about the decisions that aff ect them, and in turn channel their views and reactions back to EU decision-makers. The Committee is the house of civil dialogue – a bridge between the EU and civil society.

Active citizenship does not necessarily mean toeing the line or adhering obediently to the status quo. Indeed, in many cases, active citizens are those who use democratic processes to challenge the rules. Georgios Dassis, from Greece, highlights how trade unionists have, over the years, taken to the streets to win improved working conditions, and in referring to his own experience as the victim of an undemocratic regime, he also warns indirectly of the danger of failing to defend the rights and freedoms we tend to take for granted.

Going to another level

But society is changing rapidly. With the impact of the single market and greater mobility, communities are breaking down and with them, very often, people’s sense of being able to shape their own environment. At European level, we see the corrosive rise of Euro-scepticism in public opinion – exacerbated by the financial crisis – or even worse, the spectre of nationalism. This confirms the importance of changing policies through a bottom-up approach which involves active citizens and heightens their sense of ownership of their communities. Henri Malosse, from France, and Anne-Marie Sigmund, from Austria, both highlight the need to develop active European citizenship. Ms Sigmund believes that the European Citizens’ Initiative – described in more detail on page 54 in the book –  could be a tool to inspire cross-border action and participation. In its opinion on ‘Making European citizenship visible and effective’, the EESC points to the need to forge a strong European identity, based on shared values, dialogue, and support for EU-wide citizens’ networks.

The Committee puts forward a number of suggestions for fostering transnational action, such as a European voluntary service scheme for young people, and upgrading consultation procedures. As the opinion makes clear, citizens need to feel closer to the EU, and to know more about their rights within it. “European citizenship should be seen as … a ‘new frontier’, opening up more rights, more freedoms and more responsibilities.”

The EESC’s opinion on the EU’s Active Citizenship action programme highlights the importance of learning from history and preserving the memory of the past, in forging a common European identity. This is something that concerns Andrzej Adamczyk, from Poland. In Western Europe, people have grown accustomed to exercising democratic rights, over decades if not centuries. It is easy to become blasé. But in countries like his own, these same freedoms are still relatively new and novel and he, like many other people, vividly recalls the time when being an active citizen could carry grave risks.

What role for volunteering?

The EESC points out that “voluntary activity is inextricably linked with active citizenship … People take part in the life of society not only through political participation but also through the specific solution of social problems. By working for society they can translate a desire to help shape society into action. It is this very form of European active citizenship which gives people a strong sense of belonging to society. Voluntary activity can therefore be regarded as one of the best examples of participation and thus an essential component of, or even a precondition for, active citizenship.” In its opinion, the Committee itself pioneered the idea of a European Year of Volunteering.

Voluntary action has many benefits. It promotes personal development, solidarity and mutual understanding, as well as having an economic value. In a European Parliament survey of voluntary work in the EU, in June 2011, 34 % of respondents said its most important role was in maintaining and strengthening social cohesion. “For volunteers the benefits of voluntary action include meaningful use of leisure time, developing social skills and making contacts, as well as acquiring and exchanging experience,” says the EESC.

Such experience should make young people, especially, more employable. The European Commission, in a September 2011 Communication on EU Policies and Volunteering, recognised the need for greater recognition of the competences and skills gained through volunteering. It announced plans for “a Council Recommendation on the validation of non-formal and informal learning, including the recognition of competences acquired through volunteering”.

Just as important, perhaps, this activity brings enormous personal satisfaction. Waltraud Klasnic, from Austria, emphasises this aspect in her interview, when she says: “Helping people helps me as well, it makes me happy.”

But the EESC has stressed repeatedly that volunteering must not replace paid work, and volunteers should never be exploited. This is a particular concern in the current economic crisis. “Great care should be taken to resist the knee-jerk urge to fall back on volunteers to mitigate adverse social impacts of the crisis,” said the EESC in its 2009 opinion on the ‘European Year of Volunteering 2011’. Paid and voluntary work should be complementary activities, not alternatives.

Rights, not privileges

One problem is that while the principle of active citizenship is widely understood, when it comes to volunteering, “each country has diff erent notions, definitions and traditions”, admits the Commission.

Across the EU, more than 100 million people are estimated to engage in some form of voluntary work, with sport and culture being the most popular areas of activity. By the end of 2011, Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding wants the number to have risen signifi cantly. But within this fi gure there are big national variations, often due to the way volunteers are counted.

Anna Maria Darmanin is member of the organisation Moning TearsFurthermore, almost one in five Member States lacks a clear legal frame­work and rules for volunteers and volunteering. The EESC has called firmly for an enabling environment and for the removal of financial and legal barriers to volunteering.

The EESC is involved in the debate on a European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers, which would need to be endorsed and implemented by the Member States. A rights-based approach is necessary to reflect the fact that volunteering and active citizenship are rights, and not privileges. We should be looking at volunteering through the volunteers’ eyes and taking into account their needs and aspirations.

Voluntary activity is unpaid, but not cost-free. The EESC has called for investment in infrastructure and resources to cover training, support and reimbursement of expenses.

The EESC points out that companies and employers have a role to play in promoting voluntary activity. More and more large firms are demonstrating corporate responsibility by encouraging their staff to become active citizens. But small businesses can also do their bit. Madi Sharma, from the UK, runs an SME that offers training in entrepreneurship. But she also takes that expertise into schools, or shares it with women who have suffered domestic violence. And she illustrates how some EESC members extend their active citizenship beyond European borders, through her work to change the lives of young Africans affected by civil war. At the same time, Juan Mendoza from Spain helps Europeans to broaden their horizons through social tourism.

The next steps

2012 is the European Year of Active Ageing and intergenerational solidarity. This offers many opportunities not only to sustain the work launched during the 2011 Year of Volunteering, but also to raise awareness about active citizenship in the EU. Indeed, it is a topic of special importance to older people. The EESC has drawn attention to the link between active ageing, solidarity between generations, and active citizenship: “On the one hand it enables older people to continue to be involved in the life of society, to make use of their life experience and to continue to feel useful.

Waltraud Klasnic from Austria and André Mordant from Belgium both testify to the fact that retirement from paid employment is no barrier to active citizenship. There is a plethora of ways in which older people can continue to use their knowledge and experience to the benefit of society.

Throughout the European Year of Volunteering, the EYV Alliance, a coalition of 39 European networks with some 2 000 member organisations reaching hundreds of thousands of volunteers, has been working on a European Policy Agenda on Volunteering, to be presented to the Commission. The Committee has consistently supported the work of the EYV Alliance and called for a White Paper, which would set out specific proposals and actions for the future.

In addition, it is important for the EESC to be actively involved in implementing the European Citizens’ Initiative, introduced under the Lisbon Treaty, and due to come into force in April 2012. This measure means that a minimum of 1 million European citizens, from at least one-quarter of Member States, will be able to call on the European Commission to put forward new legislation on an issue that concerns them. A citizens’ committee made up of seven EU citizens or more, in at least seven diff erent countries, will have one year to collect certified statements of support. The Commission then has three months to examine the initiative and decide how to act. As Luca Jahier, from Italy, points out, the Committee is the EU’s institutional platform for dialogue with organised civil society, and the European Citizens’ Initiative is a further tool to enable citizens to make their voice heard in Brussels. Members have an opportunity to raise the profile of their work, helping to foster a true European identity.

There are many outstanding examples of active citizenship waiting for you in this book. We hope you will enjoy reading about them. In the meantime, we on the EESC will continue working to promote active citizenship in the EU, one of our core tasks, because without active citizenship there can be no citizens’ Europe.


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