Having learned most of my French from ‘Allo ‘Allo, I’m afraid the title above will be the beginning and the end of the use of the language in this blog piece – which details a recent third sector delegation to Brussels.

Led by SCVO, a diverse delegation of Scottish third sector organisations (comprising those with a focus on nature/environment, disability rights, carers, youth employment, the rights of children, homelessness, health improvements and secular societies) visited the Belgian capital to engage with the institutions of the EU – fact finding, building new contacts, reinforcing old ones and putting across our key messages.

In essence, we wanted to let our hosts know that Scotland’s third sector is overwhelmingly pro-European and that we want to ensure a strong and dynamic future relationship with them – regardless of the final Brexit outcome.

At the same time, we wanted to make clear our frustration at the lack of space for civil society in the ongoing debate and to ensure our voice is heard (and concerns understood) as negotiations proceed.

Day 1

With the help of the European Commission, we were able to establish a programme of events* which would encapsulate some of the big challenges many European nations face and which civil society has an active role in facing down.

As became a theme during the trip, hearing the latest in terms of EU priorities and advancements simply reinforced the feeling that Brexit simply will not further our cause.

The opening session focussed on EU Citizenship (Strengthening Citizens’ Rights in a Union of Democratic Change’). Amongst other things, our presenter outlined the work the European Commission is undertaking to raise awareness and intensify dialogue around of EU citizenship rights, strengthen the European Voluntary Service, run a campaign on violence against women, present proposals to improve work-life balance and help people exercise their voting rights.

The evening took us through yet more airport-style security and in to the European Parliament Building, where Alyn Smith MEP hosted a reception to help fellow MEPs (from Catalunya, Austria, Germany, France, Ireland and the UK) understand Brexit and Scotland’s unique situation within it. The welcome was extremely warm and there was undoubtedly a real willingness to involve the third sector in their future work.

Day 2

With a full card of lectures in the European Commission, we began by learning about the efforts by the EU to encourage healthy ageing, tackle demographic challenges and conduct research in to the impact of a rapidly ageing populace on our future. Whilst much of the change will be down to member states to enact, the solutions we heard were innovative and the body of research utterly fascinating.

A session on nature protection spoke of the need to reconcile protecting the environment whilst pursuing industrial farming policies. The presentation also looked at the Commission’s work in helping business see nature and the environment as an asset and not simply a hindrance. Interestingly, much of this positive work may be linked to any future trade deal with the UK – ensuring robust protections remain.

On the labour market, skills and education, we heard much about the relative state of the UK in comparison to others. Whilst headline figures on employment were generally very positive, a scratch at the surface displayed some less savoury findings – including a yawning gender pay gap, disability employment gap, prevalence of low pay/low quality work, serious problems in providing adequate childcare and issues around the recruitment of apprentices already in work/above 25.

The day at the Commission ended with a presentation by Mr Guus Muijzers, Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy. Central to this discussion was a focus on reducing disparities between the levels of development inside and between member states. Essentially, if one area is deprived and another is prosperous, people will move and exacerbate a difficult situation. In the UK, London skewed regional GDP by 550% – necessitating a new graph for the entire EU!

A networking event at the European Civic Forum gave us the opportunity to compare notes and to meet with civil society partners from across Europe. Speaking through an interpreter, President Jean-Marc Roirant, echoed our view that the third sector is firmly placed to confront the tests we face – protecting the environment, tackling a resurgence in right wing politics, meeting the demographic challenge and advancing human rights and equalities – and that Scotland’s third sector remains welcome to play its part.

On the eve of our departure (physically and metaphorically) it was reassuring to know that the mood music is positive in Europe and that our messages are most certainly getting through.

*I should mention that I do have copies of all the presentation slides we were shown. If you would be interested in seeing them, please feel free to email me at craig.wilson@scvo.org.uk