In November Politico Brussels Playbook reported that the Slovak EU presidency wanted to cut the budget for Erasmus+, a European youth exchange scheme, due to budgetary concerns. Later the newly seated presidency corrected that the plan was not to cut the existing budget, but to reduce the Commission-proposed increase for 2017 by half. Thus, instead of receiving a 200 million €, a 1.38% increase of the previous year’s budget, the program will now only receive a 100 million € increase. 1
There have been little to no reactions from politicians around Europe. Spending is not popular these days; spending at the EU level, even less so. On top of that, the Erasmus+ program already absorbs a 14.4 billion € budget, so many do not see why more money should be spent on it. What is popular though, is for European politicians to repeat common catchphrases about the importance of our youth: “young people are the world’s future,” “youth is our priority,” or “change will come from our youth.”
If youth really is a priority, a 1.38% increase of the Eramus+ budget doesn’t seem too excessive. 2
Why do I care about this issue? I’m a 23 years old Belgian studying political science in Brussels, and for several years now I’ve participated in or organized several Erasmus+ funded projects.
I have met people coming from all over the continent; some I like, and others not so much. I have been inspired by some, while others have challenged my thinking. What has been important in the end, is that these experiences have broadened my horizons further than they otherwise would have been.
Without this experience, I wouldn’t be writing today for a blog focused on Central Europe, a region I frankly never cared about before meeting some Polish youngsters in Luxembourg seven years ago when I took part in my first Erasmus+ project. Since then, I’ve lived in Prague for one year and studied at Charles University, while I coordinated projects involving Polish youth, and I am truly haunted by the actions of the current Polish government.
But what is Erasmus+ exactly? And why is it important for European youth today? Virtually everyone now knows about the famous Erasmus program, an exchange program that allows students from all over the EU (and elsewhere) to study from three months to one year at a university in the EU or other partner countries. Since it began in 1987, the program has allowed more than three million people to study abroad. 3
Erasmus nevertheless remains elitist in the eyes of many, as it is nearly exclusive to university students and trainees, an increasing portion of Europe’s youth population, but restricted nonetheless.
And that is where the genius of Erasmus+ programs come in. Erasmus+ combines all the EU’s previous funding schemes for youth education and training, including the Lifelong Learning Programme (Erasmus, Leonardo da Vinci, Comenius, Grundtvig), Youth in Action and five international cooperation programmes (Erasmus Mundus, Tempus, Alfa, Edulink and the programme for cooperation with industrialized countries). 4
It not only allows university students to participate in exchanges abroad, but all kinds of youngsters. The exchanges revolve around a wide variety of subjects: from sports to politics, work experiences, trainings and many more. In 2014 alone, it has benefited more than 650,000 individuals directly, and much more indirectly.
It is common to forget that the impact goes way further than the individual who takes part in an exchange. People talk, people share and interact and when someone does an Erasmus or a European Voluntary Service (EVS) for example, maybe they will stay mostly with international students as studies have shown, 5 but at the very least they will interact with professors, colleagues or random people they meet in a café… and that will impact all of them and their surroundings indirectly.
Furthermore, when participants come back home after such exchanges, they share their findings and impressions with their friends, families and their communities, de facto multiplying the impact of such experience.
The Slovak Presidency, justifies this proposed lesser increase in the Erasmus+ budget, by saying that Europe faces unprecedented challenges, such as migration and security, and reminds that European economies are doing poorly. 6
Are the answers the Slovak presidency provides adequate though? I think not. As we have seen, Erasmus+ doesn’t weigh that heavily on the EU budget.
However, one thing that fuels the crisis around immigration and security today is fear and rejection of the other, and this is often due to a lack of knowledge, be it on the side of xenophobic nationalists or young people who engage in terrorism.
More and more young people get information via Facebook, 7 which often results in a biased view of the world. Because policies trend on social media and because Facebook friends tend to share similar opinions and social traits (nearly every one of mine goes to university, dislikes Trump and has compassion for refugees), leaving one’s comfort zone is crucial to the broadening of horizons. Meeting people personally often results in a better conversation and understanding than a war of hateful comments under one Twitter post does. Erasmus+ programs provide just that.
They allow people to meet others they would never have met otherwise, people who are culturally or socio-economically different, those, who they might have been prejudiced against beforehand. Maybe some of these prejudices will stick with them, but sometimes a Slovak may realize they share more with a young Muslim Belgian than with some of their own Slovak compatriots.
In the end, many studies have shown that Erasmus exchanges don’t have that big of an influence on one being more pro-European. But creating a generation of pro-European puppies is not the goal. It does create people, who are more critical towards their own ideas, and discerning about what they hold as absolute truths. It doesn’t take away one’s feelings of national belonging and replace it with a more Eurocentric one: it strengthens participants’ own identities, enabling them to be more confident in a globalized world.
Don’t save on Erasmus+; make it bigger and make sure people from all social, cultural, economic and religious backgrounds take part in it. That is how you fight the “crisis” of extremism – not by building walls at our borders. Maybe if Mr Fico and his Smer party peers had benefited from such programs they wouldn’t have built their political campaigns on the fear that Muslim immigrants were coming to Slovakia … who knows?
Read the original text in Visegrad Revue.
This article has been automatically generated from the Visegrad Revue webzine, a project funded by the International Visegrad Fund. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily have to represent the official position of the donor, the Visegrad Group, or the publisher (Democracy in Central Europe).