The projects which took home the prize are just a snapshot of the immense efforts undertaken by countless civil society organisations, companies and individuals on the ground, demonstrating that without them the price paid for the pandemic would be much higher
The Economic and Social Committee (EESC) paid tribute to the winners of its Civil Solidarity Prize at a ceremony held during its plenary session on 25 February, saying the award is also an acknowledgement of the selfless engagement of the entire grassroots level from day one of the pandemic when many organisations and individuals were quick to assist the most vulnerable and help in any other way needed.
The unique award, launched in summer 2020 and dedicated to the fight against COVID-19 and its terrifying consequences, was presented to 23 civil society organisations, companies and individuals who had shown exceptional solidarity and civic responsibility in battling the pandemic. They were chosen from among the 250 candidates who competed for the prize, with the projects being carried out across the EU and in the UK.
The winners had already been announced at the online award ceremony held by the EESC on 15 February and followed live by several thousand people. Each winner was awarded EUR 10 000. The full list of winners and descriptions of their projects are available here.
At the ceremony held at the plenary session, the EESC celebrated the winners but also said there were some important lessons to be learned from all the projects submitted to this year's contest, which, if applied, could add true value to and have a real impact on the post-COVID-19 recovery.
EESC president Christa Schweng said:
This year, we do not only have a different ceremony but we also have a different prize for unprecedented times. Never since the end of World War II has the global community faced such a dramatic crisis.
The president thanked the winners and all the candidates for their
impressive and enriching initiatives which have shown that working together, sometimes under difficult conditions, pays off. I encourage you all to continue your valuable activities, further tackle the consequences of the crisis and contribute to the recovery and reconstruction.
EESC vice-president for communication, Cillian Lohan, who last week handed out the awards to the winners, said:
Our candidates have shown that even the smallest organisations on the ground and spontaneously organised civil society can really make the difference in their communities. This is the first lesson we can learn from them, Mr Lohan said, adding that, as an advisory body, the EESC has to ensure that the measures adopted by European decision-makers to aid the recovery really make a difference for the people for which they are designed.
He said the lessons learned from tackling the pandemic could be applied to other burning challenges awaiting Europe once it recovers from COVID-19, such as climate change:
To tackle this, we need the engagement of the whole of society, as well as behavioural changes from each and every one of us, but nothing as drastic as social distancing and lockdowns.
He also thanked many current and former EESC members who have themselves worked on the front lines to mitigate the consequences of COVID-19.
Mr Lohan's predecessor, former vice-president for communication Isabel Caño Aguilar, who was in charge of creating and launching the prize last July, said:
The idea behind the EESC Civil Solidarity Prize was to highlight how important civil society is in such difficult times. We know now that during the past 12 months, civil society organisations have worked harder than ever, often in very difficult circumstances.
Ms Caño Aguilar added that, in line with the UK Withdrawal Agreement, the EESC was able to include candidates from the UK as well.
COVID-19 has had no borders, neither has solidarity, she stressed.
During the plenary debate, EESC members stressed that they had a difficult job in choosing the top projects as all the submitted applications had been of exceptional quality. The final choice also had to reflect the diversity of solidarity actions carried out on the ground.
Unlike the traditional annual prize, this contest was also open to companies and the applications received showed that business contributions went beyond donations, with corporate social responsibility initiatives playing an important role in tackling the effects of the crisis and targeting the most vulnerable groups in particular.
Compared to the entries received for the Civil Society Prize in previous years, the EESC saw an increased number of applications from informal or less well-established organisations, which clearly demonstrates the spirit on the ground.
The prize has also shown that initiatives run by individuals and civil society in many ways complemented or even compensated for efforts undertaken by Member States to cushion the blows of the crisis and were even ahead of them in some areas. There were also fewer entries from some countries that were less severely hit during the first wave of the pandemic or from those with stronger welfare systems.
REACTIONS FROM EESC MEMBERS
In the debate that followed, all the speakers expressed their admiration for the work done by the winners, the other candidates and the whole of civil society on the ground in the ongoing battle against COVID-19.
President of the EESC Employers' Group Stefano Mallia, said:
Our winners and all the other candidates have shown a sense of solidarity, directed at those who need support the most. But they have also demonstrated innovation, and much of this innovation is happening in SMEs. SMEs employ 100 million people and generate half of the EU's GDP. So I am very pleased that some of the winners are SMEs or organisations that represent small enterprises. All our winners are a genuine symbol of the importance of European solidarity, which is crucial if we are to come out of this crisis stronger.
President of the EESC Workers' Group Oliver Röpke, said:
I would like to pay tribute to the 250 projects submitted for the prize. They represent the outstanding spirit of selflessness guiding civil society, including our EESC members. The commitment of social partners and civil society to helping others with their time and resources is a guiding light. With solidarity as a guiding principle, we must rebuild and reform our societies, focusing on workers' rights and real sustainability. Workers' and citizens' voices will be key.
President of the EESC Diversity Europe Group Séamus Boland, said:
It is our responsibility to raise awareness of the essential role played by civil society organisations in their communities during the health crisis. But we also have a responsibility to launch a reflection on the post-COVID-19 civic space and on the types of societies and economies we wish to create. This is why our Group requested an EESC study on the topic "The response of civil society organisations to the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent restrictive measures adopted in Europe", which will be officially launched at our conference on 12 March.
MORE ABOUT THE CIVIL SOLIDARITY PRIZE
As the first lockdowns were imposed across Europe, the EESC decided to temporarily scrap its traditional Civil Society Prize, which, since 2006, has been bestowed annually upon civil society organisations and individuals whose outstanding projects celebrate our European identity and our shared values in a particular field of work.
The EESC replaced it with the Civil Solidarity Prize to recognise the enthusiastic engagement and work done by the grassroots level from the first days of the pandemic.
Instead of the usual five awards that go to the winners of Civil Society Prize, this prize was to crown up to 29 winners – from all EU countries and the UK, with one prize to go to a cross-border project.
Despite the fact that the EESC looked for winners in all Member States and the UK, it did not find any eligible projects in six EU countries.
The Civil Solidarity Prize was open to individuals, civil society organisations and companies whose projects had to be strictly not-for-profit and not more than 50% publicly funded. They had to be directly linked to COVID-19, specifically aiming to fight the virus or tackle its consequences.
The EESC received 250 applications, which is the second highest number in the prize's history, topped only by the 2015 edition, which honoured projects helping refugees and migrants.
All of the projects received had solidarity as their driving force and displayed creative and effective ways of rising to the often daunting challenges posed by the crisis. Most projects targeted vulnerable groups or the people most affected by the crisis such as elderly or young people, children, women, minorities, migrants, homeless people, medical personnel or employees and employers.
The projects focused on five main themes: provision of food and assistance to vulnerable groups, medical equipment, advisory services, educational services and information on the pandemic, and culture.
The video of the award ceremony featuring the winners is available here.