Inaugural speech by Séamus Boland, conference 'Volunteers – citizens building the future of Europe'

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Gdánsk, Poland, 7 July 2022

Mrs Mayor, Directors, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure that I would like to formally open this conference in Gdánsk on the topic of 'Volunteers – citizens building the future of Europe'. We are in the city which in 2022 has been honoured with the title of 'European Capital of Volunteering'. And we are here, the Civil Society Organisations' Group of the European Economic and Social Committee, together with the many stakeholders who have contributed to the organisation of this event and to our three-day mission to Gdánsk. Namely: the Centre for European Volunteering, the City of Gdańsk, the National Freedom Institute Centre for the Development of Civil Society of Poland, the Gdańsk European Solidarity Centre, the Gdańsk Museum of the Second World War, the Gdańsk Regional Volunteering Centre, the RC Foundation, the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association, as well as the Scouting Association of the Republic of Poland.

On behalf of the Members of our Group, I would like to sincerely thank all of you for your hospitality and assistance, it is very much appreciated. I would like to particularly thank Mr Krzysztof Pater. Krzysztof is a very active and respected Member of our Group and President of the Polish Scouting and Guiding Association. This event was initiated by him and he has been instrumental to its success!

One of the reasons why I agreed to Krzysztof's proposal, is because it is very important to 'take Europe' to the citizens in the Member States and particularly, to the citizens outside of the capitals. A second reason why I agreed, is because of the significance of the city of Gdánsk. Not only because this year it is the European Capital of Volunteering. But also because Gdánsk’s role in 20th Century European history is remarkable. Of course we all know that the Second World War began with the invasion of this city on 1 September 1939 and that the creation of the first independent trade union in the Communist Bloc (Solidarnost), directly impacted the fall of communism in Europe.

What is less well known about Gdánsk, but in my opinion is equally important to the identity of Europe and of the European Union, are the other parts of its complex history. Established in 997 A.D, by the 18th Century this elegant and beautiful city had been under the Kingdom of Poland, Prussian, Germanic and Russian rule. Gdánsk has been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th Century and has also thrived as a free city-State. It has been a member of the Hanseatic League, trading as far as Bruges, Lisbon and Seville. In 1949 it was the port of entry and refuge for fleeing Greeks at the end of the Greek civil war. And in 2019 Gdánsk was again in the headlines, with the murder of its Mayor, Pawel Adamowicz. 

So when I, an Irishman coming from a country at the periphery of Europe look back over the history of this city, I see 'Europe'. I see the trading connections, the wars and values on which the European Union was built. I see our common history and identity, which is again threatened by the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, by the Russian Federation under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. And later today, we will have the opportunity to hear concrete examples of how volunteers are helping the refugees of that war.

Ladies and gentlemen, we could spend the whole day reminiscing over History and the links to the Present. But allow me now to say a few words about the substance of today’s conference.

This is not the first time that the Civil Society Organisations' Group of the EESC is in Poland discussing the topic of volunteering. We were in Warsaw in 2011 and the Committee has adopted 5 Opinions on the subject, the last in 2021 on the same topic as this conference.

One of our objectives today, is to highlight the pivotal contribution made by volunteers at the local, national and European levels. Actually, one in every five persons in Europe above the age of 16 are involved in voluntary activities. And although volunteering should not replace the basic tasks of governments, it is true that volunteering enhances solidarity, inclusion, inter-generational cooperation, societal and cultural ties. Beyond the provision of services, volunteering is also an example of active participation in shaping our societies, something that is crucial in our democracies.

What is perhaps less well known is the economic contribution of volunteering. Figures dating from 2011 reveal that that the voluntary sector constituted 5% of Europe's GDP. Since then, we have had the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, so I am certain that this economic contribution has increased.

Today’s event will also provide the opportunity to disseminate the results of a study commissioned by the EESC at the request of our Group. This study was carried out by the Rotterdam School of Management at the Erasmus University and it outlines the different volunteering traditions in five EU countries. Of particular interest is the emergence of 'spontaneous volunteering' – something that we have certainly witnessed over the last three years.

What we will certainly hear today will be the necessity to support the volunteering sector through the creation of safe and quality volunteering environments and sustainable financing. National legislation to encourage long-term volunteering, protect volunteers and remove legal impediments to their activities are also essential for the sector to grow.

I will bring my remarks to a close, by recalling that the Conference on the Future of Europe ended just two months ago. Today, we are speaking about volunteers and their role in the future of Europe. And I believe that a strong case can be made, for arguing that volunteers should have a role in shaping and building Europe’s future. The EESC certainly plans to use its institutional role to support and strengthen civil society dialogue in the implementation of the recommendations of the CoFoE. Volunteers and the volunteering sector should be an integral part of this process. And what better way to start, than to join forces to promote 2025 as the European Year of Volunteering!     

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your attention and I will now give the floor to Mrs Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Mayor of Gdánsk.


Speech by Séamus Boland