Montag, 8. Februar 2016

They Could be Heroes: A Proposal for a Unified Civic Service of the European Union

● By Peter F. Ohman, Frankfurt am Main, Germany ● 

Here’s an idea. Let’s combine the challenge of millions of unemployed young Europeans with that of the apparent fraying of the fabric of European unity. And then let’s think about whether we can come up with a single idea that would both reduce youth unemployment and strengthen a common Europe. Who knows? We might even come up with something that could help us better manage the massive influx of migrants that so many are worrying about these days. 

So close your eyes. Imagine a unified “national” or civic service for all the Member-states of the European Union, through which thousands of young Europeans are yearly sent out from their homes to other countries within the Union: Greeks to Germany, Swedes to Portugal, Czechs to Finland, Romanians to Ireland, French to Croatia, and so on. These young European service volunteers would be trained for entry-level community service jobs in schools, nursing homes, national parks and the like, as well as be taught the basics of the local language where they were sent. Imagine those young Europeans committing to two years of service.

Imagine young Europeans doing national service serving the “nation” of Europe.

Of course, such a vision is far too idealistic for this era of austerity and shrunken dreams: a unified young volunteer service for 28 countries, indeed. Why, the actual numbers involved would be have to be huge: a hundred thousand, at least! And the costs of training, housing, paying and insuring them – not to mention the administration – would be astronomical. And what would be the point?

But maybe the real question concerns the cost of doing nothing. Literally millions of young Europeans currently are “not in education, employment or training”, and youth unemployment in many EU countries has well and truly reached catastrophic levels.

And then there’s this: however can we relieve the strains on the ties that bind together the European Union? For the effect of the past few years has been to expose and exacerbate intra-Union tensions, adding fuel to the fire of political extremism and dark populism, and posing a threat to a continuing common European future.

But why service? Well, there are plenty of people who need more assistance than they receive. There are lonely homebound elderly and sick people, there are care-giving family members who need occasional relief, there are children with special needs and kids who need a tutor, a mentor or even a friend. There are teachers, librarians and social workers, who could use some help to better perform their work. There are swimming pools, theatres, youth centres and group homes that would appreciate additional labour. And there are refugee reception centres that are begging for more help. Even the richest countries are not able to meet all the needs of society by conventional means.

We are constantly reminded that, though much has been done in the EU to foster a common market, a common currency and such, there has been less progress in showing the common folk that they actually have something in common with one another, and have a share in the commonwealth of Europe. Surely, the European Union will not survive if it is simply perceived as a harmonious institutional framework of comfortable bureaucrats, ideologues and experts parsing rules, compiling statistics, and arguing over various subsidies. Particularly when the perceived inability of our leaders to solve current problems leads to a rage and alarm that jingoistic and xenophobic agitators eagerly stimulate and exploit. Honestly, wasn’t the idea of a European Union to put a stop to all that?

Instead, we need to leapfrog this crisis of confidence, the disappointment and disillusionment, and get ahead of the dangerous curve of unbridled social fear and anger. And we can enlist many of those with the greatest stake in a better common future – those most vulnerable to the actions and inactions of European leaders, those who surely had no part in the making of this crisis, and those with the most daring, the most energy and, yes, the most idealism – to repair the tears in the social fabric, by empowering them to spearhead the essential, street-level weaving together of a common European Union.

Again, why service? Well, there are also plenty of public spaces that need more tending to than they receive. There are trees to plant, graffiti to remove, sandboxes to build and schools and hospitals to decorate. There is urban wasteland to transform into community gardens and there are bicycles and tires to fish out of ponds and streams, wetlands to reclaim and stray pets to rescue. There are concerts to be given, plays to perform, and murals to be painted. There are languages to be taught, physical fitness to foster, blighted communities to strengthen, tolerance to develop and prejudice to dispel. And, there are also emergencies and disasters to prepare for, first aid to administer and public safety to ensure.

Of course, there are many worthy private and public programs encouraging social, national, civic or alternative service, including even a EU-bonafide European Voluntary Service agency, a small-scale, largely self-service 2-12 month volunteer opportunity for not quite 10,000 young people per year. However, what we really need is something much, much greater in scale, ambition and impact. Something that delivers training, skills and experience, promotes the ideal and practice of community service, strengthens a common European identity, and reduces youth unemployment along the way. We need some simple, inspired idea that combines vision, idealism, solidarity and practical assistance. We need something tangible and powerful, something like… 1,000,000 young European service volunteers.
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For support, click here.

Quixotic? Yes, but remember how much of a fairy tale the entire European Union project itself was, once upon a time?

Yes. So, let’s be ambitious. In the present climate of massive youth unemployment and growing European disharmony, we need to boldly grasp an opportunity to take creative, decisive and appropriate steps to alleviate suffering and ameliorate damage. Let’s make a grand gesture that faithfully conveys vision and hope, and truthfully delivers training, skills, jobs and public service across all of Europe. Let us stop talking of blame and victims, and instead talk of heroes, for truly that is what we need. European youth – unemployed or not – could be those heroes, and not just for one day.

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