Citizens of Today: Reflections on Erasmus

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current features, Features

Martine Reicherts, Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General of Education and Culture, visited the EUI in February. She met with President Dehousse and Secretary-General Grassi, had a tour of the European University Library and visited the Historical Archives of the European Union. In an interview with The EUI Times, Reicherts reflects on the legacy of the Erasmus generation.

Manuel Marín was Vice-President of the European Commission presided over by Jacques Delors. He was responsible for Social Affairs, Education and Employment, and led negotiations for the Erasmus programme. He visited the EUI in October for a conference on Higher Education and European Integration. Quotes are taken from his address to the conference.

Martine Reicherts

Martine Reicherts

More than nine million young people have lived and studied abroad under the Erasmus programme in the thirty years since its creation. Students have come to know people, places, and languages which would otherwise have remained foreign. It is even said that one million babies have been born as a result.

While Martine Reicherts explained that ‘from day one, [Erasmus] was not a political initiative,’ getting the programme off the ground required long and difficult negotiations. Manuel Marín, who was one of the Commissioners leading the negotiations, explained the scenario earlier this academic year at a conference at the EUI. ‘While the EC needed to facilitate the mobility of students, it was impossible to do so within the confines of member states, which were reluctant to recognise each other’s credits, degrees, and qualifications.’  Mrs Thatcher allegedly defended British universities as ‘the best’ and representatives in Paris conceptualised control of education as part of nation and identity under ‘republican values’. In Germany, control over higher education was under the exclusive control of the Lander.  Resistance to the programme, he explained, ‘very much a sovereignty issue.’

Indeed, due to the lack of cooperation, the EC at one point withdrew its proposal from the Council of Ministers.  This move spurred the Council to react, and in the end, that body brought the member states into agreement on the programme.

Ellen Halliday and Miguel Marin

Manuel Marín in an October 2016 interview with Ellen Halliday at the EUI

‘Erasmus must be understood,’ Marín continued, ‘as part of a general approach to create a ‘Europe of citizens’.  While at the time Brussels insisted the programme was in not a move to undermine the competence of member states over higher education, in retrospect, as Mr Marín remarked during the conference ‘it was.’

Similar concerns about the overlap between member states and European sovereignty shape the contentious debate about free movement in Europe today. After Brexit, parties espousing anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiments could gain support in the upcoming Dutch and French elections. Yet Erasmus depends on such ‘fundamentals’ of EU citizenship.  It ‘needs to be untouched if we are to go on with the Erasmus program,’ Reicherts said.

The greatest achievement of Erasmus is, perhaps, the cultivation of ‘European citizens’. ‘The Erasmus generation is a European generation,’ Reicherts said. ‘One of the main projects that we developed 30 years ago was to create the conditions for maintaining the spirit of Europe at the university level.’ Marín also remarked on the importance of including young people.  ‘The goal,’ he said ‘was to catch the youth’, a more open-minded generation.

The ‘Europe of Citizens’ is increasingly under threat. Yet  ‘[Higher Education] is running quite well in comparison with other European areas where we have a real crisis. So we have to protect it,’ Marín told The EUI Times.

‘Recent events have shown me that nothing can ever be taken for granted,’ Reicherts said, reflecting on the shocks experienced in Europe in 2016. ‘I was in Brussels on the 22nd March last year when we had the terrorist attack and I would never have expected something like this to happen,’ she said. Since the attacks in Paris in November 2015, the European Commission has begun to look more closely at anti-radicalisation and inclusion. ‘Maybe we failed in inclusion, in tackling inequalities in the European project,’ Reicherts explained. ‘Have we really included the less favoured in our societies? Have we really integrated the people coming from abroad? What are we doing now with the migrants?’ she asked.

EU leaders still look to Erasmus, even thirty years after its creation, to help unite a divided Europe and broaden inclusion into ‘the European generation.’ ‘Those who have been through the [Erasmus] programme have developed a kind of European citizenship whereby they share values,’ Reicherts explained. Today, this is ‘what we lack most at the European level,’ she said. ‘We need to have more of the Erasmus kind of approach so that we know how to talk about any subject in a peaceful way. So that, even if we struggle, we can do so without fighting,’ she said.

A new European Commission programme, launched in September 2016, even plans to expand the ethos of Erasmus to young Europeans outside higher education. Over 20 000 people have already registered for the Solidarity Corps, through which 18-30-year-olds will volunteer abroad in Europe. They will spend between two weeks and six months working in an organisation like an NGO, or a museum.

According to Hywel Ceri Jones, seen by many, as is Manuel Marín as one of the founding fathers of Erasmus, ‘Erasmus remains a key part of the EU 2020 strategy.’ Yet unlike Erasmus, the Solidarity Corps is open to all young people, regardless of educational background. Yet Reicherts hopes that the program can nurture the same culture of shared values and secure the future of another generation of European citizens.

Thirty years ago, Europe was also divided. As Marín reflected in his speech to the conference on higher education, the Berlin wall still stood, the threat of nuclear weapons remained, and there was no internet. ‘It was hard for the EC to communicate,’ Marín told a conference on Higher Education at the EUI last year. ‘Erasmus was part of the solution,’ he said.

Since its inception, Erasmus has been a crucial part of European Higher Education and Europe more generally. It has set a precedent for European cooperation which, though unequalled in other policy areas, continues to inspire. Looking to the future, Reicherts is conscious of the many young Europeans in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales who grew up as the Erasmus generation but are soon to lose their European status thanks, perhaps, to a failure to instil the same Erasmus values more widely. ‘My message to UK students would be: you are the Erasmus generation. Don’t wait for my generation to fight for you. You are not only the citizens of tomorrow. You are the citizens of today.’

In the rest of Europe, ‘we need to expand beyond Erasmus, to help people who are not in the program yet,’ she said. To tackle integrate those on the periphery of European society, challenge nativist politics and secure the European citizenship of another ‘Erasmus generation’, ‘we need to address the concerns of our youngsters, rather than talking only about economics,’ Reicherts explained. In this regard, Manuel Marín agrees, ‘education remains a fundamental point for the future development of Europe.’ After all, at its most basic level, ‘education is really about learning to live together,’ Martine Reicherts said. ‘If we want a better world we should start there.’

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