The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has begun work on a review of the costs and benefits to the voluntary sector of Britain’s membership of the EU.
Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the NCVO, says in a blog post published today that he hopes the voluntary sector can play an important role in the debate about the EU membership referendum promised by Prime Minister David Cameron, which might be held early next year.
"Now that the dust is beginning to settle upon the general election, two key challenges are perceived to face the Prime Minister: devolution and Britain’s future role in, or membership of, the European Union," he writes. "Both are difficult. I think both have implications for voluntary organisations."
Etherington says that although "it may well be the case that constitutional affairs and Brussels are of interest only to policy wonks and political obsessives", the issues must be debated outside those narrow political spheres.
"I would hope that civil society plays a role in hosting, informing and facilitating debate," says Etherington. "This is particularly the case on the issue of Europe, where opinions are sharply divided and where the debate is often characterised by more heat than light. Civil society as a space where opposing views can be debated has never been more important."
The NCVO will publish a "costs and benefits review" for the voluntary sector in the autumn, which Etherington says will provide a template for discussion and will inform the NCVO’s trustees and members.
"This will look at the areas where voluntary organisations benefit or otherwise as a result of Britain’s membership of the EU, ranging from the value of programmes such as European structural and investment funds to the impact of regulation," he says.
Etherington says his personal experience of working in Europe is that its institutions are in need of reform. He says the NCVO’s manifesto for the 2014 European elections argued for more transparent decision-making, with more emphasis on citizen engagement.
He also asks for those within the sector to bring their views to the NCVO, and adds: "Any forthcoming renegotiation and referendum is an opportunity to press for reform in institutions, so I am keen that we identify and then press for change on issues pertinent to civil society."