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Comhlámh visits European Parliament Volunteering Interest Group

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Comhlámh’s Philip Mudge writes about his first post-Brexit trip to Brussel.  Our self-described Mr Potato-Head attended the European Parliament Volunteering Interest Group meeting hosted by Irish independent MEP Marian Harkin.


Here’s what he reports back..

Queuing up at border control in Dublin airport for the first time since the Brexit vote, I clutched my UK passport tightly and wondered how much longer I’d be welcome in the (much shorter) line for EU passport holders.  The immigration officer at Brussels Airport greeted me and asked how I was “delighted to still be an EU citizen: for now,” I replied.  He just smiled: random strangers  feeling sorry for me just because of where I happened to be born was going to be a recurring theme throughout the day….

International Volunteering Ireland.

Marian Harkin MEP speaking at the Volunteering Interest Group of the European Parliament

Comhlámh has been invited to participate in the first meeting of the re-established Volunteering Interest Group of the European Parliament and as Volunteering Quality Project Officer it fell within my brief to be the staff member to attend. Getting up at half four in the morning, not getting back home until after nine at night and traveling by air across three countries might seem like a big deal just to attend a one hour meeting, but if you think you have something relevant to say on a topic as important as volunteering (and at Comhlámh we think we do) then you have to be at the table where these issues are discussed.  The meeting was to be hosted Marian Harkin MEP for the Irish Midlands-North West constituency, so we were met outside the parliament building by her assistant

“How are things since the Brexit vote?”  Niamh asked me.

“Worse for me, I have a UK passport.” I replied.

“How and why could it have happened? It was a great shock to everyone” asked one of the other delegates (a German working for a Belgian volunteering agency).

“I saw it coming” I replied “so many people wanted to give Cameron a bloody nose and everybody thought they could vote for Brexit and embarrass him without it really affecting anything because; to quote Billy Bragg’s version of Walk Away Renee completely out of context; everyone thought it was a figment of speech….They could never imagine it happening… but it did” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Am9s85pfH8I)

Getting into the European Parliament is an (understandably and justifiably) complex procedure.  I’d sent off my passport details weeks in advance and by the time our bona fides were confirmed and our visitors passes were issued an hour had passed.  It took another twenty minutes through the maze of corridors and lifts to find our meeting room.

The meeting was opened by Marian Harkin MEP who welcomed the twenty or so members of the working group and a group from Italy who were on a two week study visit to the EU and were sitting in on the meeting and introduced the topics for the meeting: overview of European volunteering policy issues, legal status of volunteers in Europe and validation and recognition of skills acquired through non-formal and informal learning.  Other speakers included Gabriella Civico (Director European Volunteer Centre) who provided the overview on European volunteering policy issues and MEP Ivo Vajgl.

Comhlámh’s contribution to the network meeting came on the subject of recognition of skills acquired through non-formal and informal learning.  I made the case that if the skills gained through participating in volunteering programmes (at home or abroad) are to be recognised, then the programmes must be well planned, structured and organised with: specific initial and ongoing training, mentoring of volunteers, structured debriefing and effective monitoring and evaluation like all volunteer programmes provided by The Comhlámh Code of Good Practice (CoGP)for Volunteer Sending Agencies signatory organisations (http://www.comhlamh.org/code-of-good-practice-2-2/).

The CoGP ensures that all programmes provided by code signatory organisations focus on the golden triangle of addressing the needs of partner communities, supporting volunteers and ensuring the sustainability of the volunteer programme.  For skills to be recognised requires that the skills are real concrete and measurable: this is just not possible in non-structured ad hoc volunteering.  I presented Ms Harkin and Ms Civico with copies of the Code of Good Practice, which I hoped would be useful in their work on volunteering.

As always with meetings of people from different cultural backgrounds and experiences, our shared experiences and understandings and the subtle but important differences – such as what we all mean when we talk about volunteers – provided topics for debate and agreement.  For example are interns volunteers? What about French benevoles?

All in all it was a long day well spent.  The topics discussed were interesting and relevant to Irish international volunteering and the Network provides a platform for the voices of small NGOs like Comhlámh to be heard on the larger stage.  The meeting was too short, and opportunities for real networking with the other participants would have been useful, but overall it is important that volunteering is taken seriously by our public representatives.

And Mr Potato Head in Europe?  I don’t think I like being a stranger in what I thought was my home, trying to re-arrange my face to make it fit.  I’ve lived in Ireland continuously for 20 years: almost as long as I ever lived in the UK, but never even thought til now of changing one EU passport for another.  But I don’t want to be in the “others” category at customs and immigration (or anywhere really), maybe I’ll have to bite the bullet and learn a few cupla focal.

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