At its launch, the ERASMUS programme was revolutionary and provided literally unbelievable mobility. After 30 years, the stats and results are impressive. However, the look-and-feel of ERASMUS reports and events suggest a political and administrative focus rather than a celebration of a European spirit and integration. Other initiatives, like Pulse of Europe, show enormous spirit but lack the content or structure of established programmes. A combination of spirit and structure would be ideal – but is only found in few initiatives, like AEGEE.
Erasmus: Raw numbers and a hidden amazing impact on participants
4.4 million students participated in Erasmus over the past 30 years. 80% of them say that their problem solving skills have improved through their study abroad period, and 64% of employers agree that international experience is a relevant qualification that leads to greater readiness to assume responsibility. Overall, mobile graduates are twice as likely to find a job within one year after graduation that non mobile students.
What might be considered a more significant success, is the impact that Erasmus had on the participating students. 83% feel strongly connected with Europe and 81% voted in the 2014 European elections – compared to 30% of the younger generation on average. 93% say that they have come to value of cultural differences and the same amount could see themselves living abroad at some point in time (versus 73% of non-mobile students) and 95% would like to work in an international context (versus 78% of non-mobile students).
However: Lack of impact on the society at large
While the programme stats are impressive, it should be noted that – despite many successful activities – a significant criticism of Europe has grown over the past ten years. It culminated in the Brexit referendum and the undermining of European values by some member states. How has this been possible against the backdrop of vast action schemes? The most probable answers include that the focus was probably put on programme execution rather than communication, and that not enough attention was placed on reaching a good mix of audiences with various schemes. Within Erasmus+, this seems to apply to the relatively low level of student mobility among professional education. In addition, the wider society, outside of the context of higher and professional education, has heard little about the power of inter-cultural relations and had almost no possibility to experience the benefits of European integration. For the everyday benefits were communicated so badly that many people became sceptical or critical about the European idea.
New enthusiasm but with limited content or structure: Pulse of Europe
Almost like a miracle, the public, the media and politicians followed the emergence of a new movement that started in January 2017: Pulse of Europe. A small group of 200 citizens in Frankfurt Main, Germany, wanted to show their support for Europe and counterbalance the various anti-European protests at the same time. To the surprise of many, the initiative quickly inspired numerous followers, first in many other German cities, the in other countries.
It might be due to the German origin that a set of rules is applied strictly to all events: No political parties, an open stage (upon registration), European branding only, one special intervention and a human chain. All this in a given timeframe from 2 to 3 p.m. on Sundays. Specific activities are designed to focus on current topics, which included, for example, the National elections in the Netherlands and France, where collective messages were sent from many of the local events.
Lack of content and structure questions sustainability
The lowest common denominator that Pulse of Europe defines is a pro-European attitude, described by ten rather general theses. Soon, this led to criticism and questions about the sustainability of the project. What happens when the immediate threat of anti-European parties becomes irrelevant? Which development of the EU would Pulse of Europe support? How will the local groups evolve into something European – i.e. connected beyond social media? As of now, Pulse of Europe is clearly occupied with managing its own success. Erasmus (and the EU) could learn a lot from this success: How to create emotions that inspire people to stand up and get engaged. For Erasmus and other programmes clearly lack the spirit that Pulse of Europe has created. Conversely, Pulse of Europe lacks structure and content that will provide a profile and sustainability.
AEGEE: European spirit, content and structure
How the combination of European spirit, content and structure can work successfully is exemplified by a pan-European student association that is now also more than 30 years old. AEGEE was created in 1985, just months before the accession treaties of Spain and Portugal were signed. The founders wanted to promote a European consciousness beyond National identities among students through concrete joint activities including conferences or working groups. The concept quickly spread around the EU, which was less than half today’s size, and within a few years the network had grown to 10,000 students in more than 80 cities. In 1990 AEGEE opened itself to Eastern European countries many of which later became EU member states, and new formats had been added to the association’s portfolio, including for example a Summer University. The combination of a
- strong European spirit
- clear positions on some key questions (AEGEE had demanded a common European currency, foreign policy, transferability of study modules and many more elements of European integration), and
- structures to bring the network to life (conferences, working groups, summer university)
ensured that members will be able to participate – and profit! – from the organisation and embrace and inhale the idea of an integrated European Union where everyone can experience the benefits of European diversity and European integration.
Both, the administrative giant of Erasmus+ and the grass root project of Pulse of Europe could learn from this – and other initiatives – that managed to stretch across a few important areas in order to avoid being cornered in a small spot that might become too small at some point in time.