Stint abroad comes within reach of all
The plan is to offer 2,500 youngsters aged between 18 and 25 the opportunity to undertake voluntary work in Europe for between six and 12 months from the end of 1996.
The pilot scheme - European Voluntary Service for Young People - is an extension of a previous, experimental programme which has enabled 200 young people to go on long-term voluntary placements since 1992. The eventual aim is to turn the new project into a long-term programme with an established budget.
The initiative, backed by former French prime minister Edith Cresson, now European commissioner for education, training and youth, will be targeted at disadvantaged youngsters who might otherwise not have the chance to travel.
A European Commission official said the idea was to provide an educational experience for youths who will be taught basic language skills before they go, and to encourage the growth of new partnerships between non-profit making organisations in different member states.
Youngsters will undertake tasks such as caring for the elderly or handicapped or working on environmental projects. The Commission will fund 50 per cent of the cost of placing volunteers, who will receive a small amount of pocket money, while the organisations concerned will be expected to find the extra cash through fund-raising or local authority grants.
"This seems to be an idea whose time has come. There is a lot of political support for it. However, there are certain barriers to be overcome such as questions of right of residence and eligibility for social security benefits when participants come back. We're currently holding discussions with member states to see how we can facilitate things," the official said.
He denied the scheme was a way of getting young, jobless people off the streets. It was also unrelated to recent proposals by French president Jacques Chirac to abolish national service.
"The logic is totally different from military service. This is very much a voluntary thing based on active citizenship. We will be encouraging young people to come forward on the basis of their own enthusiasm and motivation. It is a new way of acquiring experience," he said.
There will be no established quotas of young people participating from each member state and youths will need no formal qualifications. However, the official admitted Britain had a poor track record on language teaching and might have difficulty finding people who can speak a second language to the required standard.
"This is why we have tried to build in a basic language training component, " he explained. He expects the first volunteers to be going out towards the end of the year.
Eluned Morgan, MEP for Mid and West Wales and a member of the European Parliament's youth committee, said the scheme would enable youngsters who might otherwise never leave their communities to see the world and learn to survive in a foreign culture. Constructive training would be involved so they would come back with additional skills.
Sarah Nicholas, exchanges officer at the British Council's Youth Exchange Centre in London, which has run a small-scale, voluntary service for young people programme for some years, said the new initiative would involve hundreds of youths in formal, organisational structures often for the first time.