The European Year of Volunteering 2011 got a ceremonial send-off in Budapest on Saturday, 8 January when the European Commission and the Hungarian Presidency of the EU joined hands at events in the city’s Millenaris Park to mark the Year’s official launch.
The Year of Volunteering was officially inaugurated by His Excellency Pál Schmitt, the President of the Republic of Hungary, as well as Mrs.Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, and Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis MEP, Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mr. László Szászfalvi, Hungary’s Junior Minister for Church, Civil Society and Nationality Affairs at the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, and Mr. Staffan Nilssen, President of the European Economic and Social Committee.
All the speakers gave inspiring speeches that were the fruit of their personal convictions about the importance of volunteers and their valuable contributions to society, the economy and to individuals. President Pál Schmitt explained that 100 million Europeans volunteer – a fifth of the adult population. Volunteers do their work in countless different ways each day without self-interest, and in doing so, help create cohesive communities. On a personal note, the Hungarian President referred to his own experiences in volunteering as a Member of the Hungarian Olympic Committee for twenty years, as well as the hard work done by his wife, the First Lady, in various charity and not-for-profit activities in Hungary.
Vice-President Reding, drawing on the President’s themes, described volunteers as the real heroes of the EU, who make a positive difference to the lives of millions of people every day. She highlighted the problem that these willing hands are regrettably often tied up in red tape because of EU countries’ counter-productive legislative or administrative burdens. This year will be an opportunity to remove such undesirable obstacles, whether they are in the field of employment law, tax rules or insurance provisions. The target would be to double the number of volunteers to 200 million in Europe by the end of this year.
Mr. Stavros Lambrinidis also spoke about his personal experiences in volunteering, especially through pro bono legal work.
Appealing to national leaders at this time of public sector cut-backs, Mr. Staffan Nilssen emphasised that the “state” must not retreat from providing a certain level of basic services for the public good, and that such responsibilities must not be placed on the shoulders of the volunteering sector. He emphasised that the volunteers should be seen as complementary to the state in such circumstances.
Mr. Szászfalvi introduced Hungary’s newly-appointed national Ambassadors for the European Year of Volunteering: the famous opera singer Mrs. Erika Miklósa, the musical theatre actor Mr. Pál Feke and Olympic Gold medallist Mr. Attila Vajda. Mr. Feke accepted the mandate in the name of the Ambassadors.
The same day saw the arrival of the European Year of Volunteering “Tour” in Budapest at the Millenáris Theatre. The Tour is a one-year travelling road show that will visit each Member State’s capital. After starting in Brussels in December 2010, the Tour arrived in Budapest’s Millenaris Theatre to give Hungarian volunteers and their organisations a chance to showcase their work and engage with policy makers and the general public for a week. (For more information about the Tour click here.)
Across Europe, 2011 will be a year devoted to and focussed on volunteering. But what is it about volunteering that makes it important enough to dedicate a European Year to it?
Around 100 million people engage in some form of voluntary activity – if they were a country, they would be the biggest Member State of the EU!
Volunteers reflect the diversity of Europe’s societies: people of all ages, women and men, students and unemployed, people from different ethnic backgrounds and belief groups and citizens from all nationalities are involved. Volunteering is clearly rooted in Europe’s shared values of democracy, solidarity and participation, and the commitment of volunteers translates these fundamental values into day-to-day action.
Wherever people work together in activities to help each other, support those in need, preserve our environment, campaign for human rights, or help ensure that everyone enjoys a decent life – both society as a whole and the individual volunteers benefit.
Hungary experienced a rapid growth in associations after the Parliament guaranteed the freedom of association in a 1989 law. The number of organisations tripled during the 1990s, and from being nearly non-existent, a sector with almost 20,000 organisations was born.The newly liberated society allowed the NGO sector to blossom in Hungary – by 2007 the number of non-profit organisations was around 62,400, the majority of which are mostly active in the fields of cultural activities, education and sports.
The European Year of Volunteering 2011 is meant to help these volunteering organisations and the volunteers themselves. The European Year will provide a much-needed impulse to set in motion the necessary changes, mainly at national level, that will make it easier for volunteering organisations and volunteers to do their work, and to do it better than ever before.
Therefore, as Vice-President Reding emphasised, the European Year of is not a “one-off” year: it is the start of a process that will go well beyond 2011. During the Year, and in the years thereafter, awareness will be raised about where change needs to happen in volunteering, and the issues will be different in each country. The Year is a platform for broadening and deepening both the outreach and the quality of volunteering, and the European Commission is working to ensure that volunteers all over Europe have been enabled – and continue to be so – to meet and learn what is done best in each European country.
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