Volunteering pertains to all forms of voluntary activity —at home or abroad, informal or formal, part-time or full-time—undertaken of a volunteer's own free will for the general public good without concern for financial gain. Volunteering is an essential part of contemporary societies, and its importance as an educational experience, a form of social participation, a factor of integration and an instrument for the development of active citizenship has long been recognised and called attention to by the European institutions.
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has, in its 1994 recommendation on the promotion of a voluntary service, underlined that voluntary service should be open to all young people and recommended to the member states of the Council of Europe to develop and promote voluntary service in all its forms both at national and European level. The recommendation also aimed to encourage increased cooperation between the European Union and the Council of Europe for the creation of an appropriate framework for voluntary service across Europe.
The Council of the European Union has, in its 2002 resolution on the added value of voluntary activity for young people, emphasised that all forms of voluntary activity add social value and called for the development of policies on voluntary activity for young people. In conformity with the intentions of the Council of Europe, the resolution envisaged a strengthening of European cooperation in this area.
With the European Convention on the promotion of a transnational long-term voluntary service for young people, the Council of Europe responded to the need to develop and promote transnational long-term voluntary service. The convention aims to promote transnational long-term voluntary service by removing still existing difficulties for volunteering across national boundaries in Europe and sets a legal framework for transnational volunteering including specifications on procedures and the roles of all the actors involved. The convention was opened to signature by the member states of the Council of Europe in 2000, but has not yet been ratified.
Following the 2001 White Paper ‘A new impetus for European youth', the European Union added its main intergovernmental instrument of governance, the open method of coordination, to the area of volunteering. To that end, the Council of the European Union established voluntary activities among young people as one of four thematic priorities within the framework of European cooperation in the youth field in 2002. In 2004, the European Commission consolidated experiences, opinions and feedback from member states by suggesting four common objectives underpinning the thematic priority on voluntary activities, namely to develop, facilitate, promote and recognise voluntary activities. The Council underlined the relevance and validity of these common objectives in 2007, agreeing on their further implementation.
In the European Union's renewed framework for European cooperation in the youth field, volunteering remains a priority area as one of eight fields of action with the objective to support youth volunteering by developing more voluntary opportunities for young people, by removing obstacles to volunteering, and by reinforcing cross-border mobility of young volunteers, an intention previously promoted in a Council recommendation.
Both European institutions have extensive operational strands in their respective programmes to substantiate the profound political support of volunteering. Among them is the European Voluntary Service (EVS), a quality model for transnational voluntary service that has been part of several generations of the EU youth programmes and aims to maintain a balance between providing services to the community and non-formal learning of the volunteers.
Despite the multiple and far-reaching political initiatives in support of volunteering and the varied and extensive approaches to strengthen voluntary activities of young people, a recent study on volunteering in the European Union observed that "there is a lack of a systematic and structured EU approach towards volunteering" (EACEA 2010: 6). The study identified numerous challenges related to, among others, the engagement of volunteers, the professionalisation of the voluntary sector, the lack of recognition and the risk of instrumentalisation of the voluntary sector. It complements previous findings as presented and analysed in the 2005 publication "Charting the landscape of European youth voluntary activities".
Both publications, however, go beyond the presentation of dilemmas and challenges by analysing potential opportunities, including the development of strategies for volunteering, the improvement of legal environments for volunteering, the recognition of volunteers' skills and experiences, and the possibility to systematically collect reliable data, drawing on "a clear momentum towards improving knowledge and understanding of volunteering" (EACEA 2010: 15).
The Council of the European Union has, with a declaration articulating the intention to address some of the challenges and to seize several of the opportunities, designated 2011—which also marks the 10th anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers—the European Year of Voluntary Activities promoting Active Citizenship.
The objectives of the European Year are to work towards an enabling environment for volunteering in the EU, to empower organisers of voluntary activities to improve the quality of voluntary activities, to recognise voluntary activities and to raise awareness of the value and importance of volunteering. Embedded in the European Year and within the framework of the Union's youth strategy, a high-level seminar on youth volunteering is planned in 2011.