Goodbye Erasmus+

As noted by Terry Reintke, Member of the European Parliament, Britain is remaining in five European Union programmes (‘Horizon’, ‘EUratom Research’, ‘ITER’, on Energy, ‘Copernicus, and SST, ‘Space, Surveillance and Tracking’), but has withdrawn participation in the ‘Erasmus+’ programme. The Erasmus+, formerly just Erasmus, programme is considered the most successful policy of the European Union. Emerged in 1987, as an exchange programme for higher education students, it now embraces a number of diverse programmes, such as Comenius, in the field of school education; Erasmus, as the original programme; Erasmus Mundus, related to the Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters Degrees; Leonardo da Vinci, in the field of vocational education and training; Grundtvig, in the field of adult learning; Youth in Action, in relation to the activities related to the field of youth non-formal and informal learning; Jean Monnet, for activities associated with the field of European Union studies; and Sport, in relation to the activities of the programme exclusively related to the field of sport. 

In 1973, the retiring Commissioner Altiero Spinelli, the author of the Ventotene Manifesto (1941) with Ernesto Rossi, pointed to the critical basis for a cultural and educational Europe, which later led to the founding of the Education and Youth department, absent in the initial Treaty of Rome. Hywel Ceri Jones became the Head of Department, Director for Education, Training and Youth Policy, and Director of the Commission’s Task Force, who directed the negotiation, further development, and management of the Erasmus programme, from 1973 to 1993. After his experience at the University of Sussex, he lived and saw the groundbreaking importance of studying abroad. At the time, in fact, the University opened to degree programmes with a year abroad as an integral part of the degree itself, whichever the degree.

After about 10 years, that same programme was launched at the European level, open to any degree as well. The European Union was offering a budget, but universities had to develop their partnerships. Universities had to recognize that experience as an integral part of the degree programme, and in many cases Higher Education institutions opened their Erasmus offices and worked on the programmes offered, but also the arrangements, the financing, travel and accommodation for students. In Hywel Cery Jones’ words, by 2020 the Erasmus+ project have involved more than 5.5 million students.

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Country members of the Erasmus+ are not just the EU member states, but also countries like Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, the Republic of North Macedonia, Turkey and Serbia. There are further countries that can participate in some of the programmes, with funding organized in ways as established by international law, respecting any restriction that may come according to the European Council, and in full respect of Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. These include many partner countries in Europe, as Albania and Montenegro, within the Eastern Partnership group, as Armenia and Georgia, the South Mediterranean region, as Egypt and Israel, and Russia. Further partner countries span from Argentina to the Faroe Islands, and all participate with the same objectives.

These include (1) the improvement of key competences and skills, with relevance to the labour market and contributing to a cohesive society, targeting increased opportunities for learning mobility and through strengthened cooperation between the world of education and training and the world of work; (2) innovation excellence and internationalization at the level of education and training institutions, through enhanced transnational cooperation between education and training providers and organizations across Europe and the world; (3) the promotion of the European lifelong learning seeking to support the European Union member states, and beyond, towards the modernization of education and training systems, and the dissemination of good practices; (4) the promotion and enhancement of the international dimension of education and training, with an increasing attractiveness of European higher education institutions; (5) while also improving the teaching and learning of languages and promoting the EU’s broad linguistic diversity and intercultural awareness, that started through Altiero Spinelli’s invitation to a cultural and education basis of EU integration.

Research shows that students enrolled in the Erasmus programme are more interested in other European countries and feel more European, and tend to support the EU, although there is also an opposite relation. Most importantly a study carried out with a colleague addresses different dimensions of European identity, and helps understand more. Just being born in Europe is not a sufficient factor, but speaking another language, exercising citizens’ rights, voting at local and European Parliament elections in another country, familiarizing with EU citizenship rights (knowing the EU laws and institutions) are factors affecting identity. The experience of living abroad enhances both a more open attitude towards other countries and cultures, with a few students returning to work in these countries, and a European identity.

It is this common identity that is often absent across British citizens. The Eurobarometer survey, carried out by the European Commission across the EU member states has examined this data for decades. Since the early 1990s, a majority of citizens across the EU felt both national and European (between 51% and 63%), dropping to 33% in the UK, the country with the lowest percentages. Yet, citizens seem not to be much aware of their EU rights, only 34% in the UK, and awareness of the rights and perception of benefits from the EU membership seem to correlate with feeling of being European, a rather, still, low percentage in the case of Britain.

This seems to find contrasting views from the Erasmus experience. More recent research shows that it boosts students’ confidence, and even when their grade may not view a significant increase, they are still more positive. Considering the academic experience beyond the pure academic performance, students feel they share their time with students across different countries, bringing a more collective perspective to their academic years. Interestingly in a book on the Erasmus experience, a British student asserted of feeling very proud of being British, but would define themselves first as European. After this experience, also with American students, they perceived more differences compared to other European students, and wished this could be recognized fully in Britain’s policy. It is not surprising that age and educational attainment had a positive relationship with the Remain vote at the 2016 British referendum.

The referendum and campaign itself had been examined in a British Academy work, looking at the different narratives and ideas of Europe. Simplification and polarization detected in 2016 have remained rather embedded four years after. The analysis addresses the encroachment narratives, of the traditional nation and its way of life pitched against immigrants, bureaucrats, Europe, experts, and whatever represents the other. While life is increasingly becoming more complex, encroachment represents security. While in my research a few respondents address the necessity of tackling the challenges of the future, as security and climate change together, while solidarity, harmonization and cooperation have already benefited the country, with free movement, better environmental policies, and status within the world, context accountability is still cause for concern in Britain and by assuming a more positive view of a European Britain does not make the debate more informed, as these four years have shown. Many British citizens are reclaiming their own European citizenship, while we think of the narratives of Brexit, the withdrawal from the Erasmus+ programme should not be surprising, as it ensures that less and less people will experience a common (European) ‘we feeling’, while cutting that European citizenship.

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