Could the UK stay in the Erasmus exchange programme after Brexit?

European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Tibor Navracsics addresses a press conference on the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus programme, at the European Commission in Brussels on January 26, 2017.
European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport Tibor Navracsics addresses a press conference on the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus programme, at the European Commission in Brussels on January 26, 2017. Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

It’s one of the few EU success stories everyone can agree on: the Erasmus student exchange programme. But after the UK’s vote to leave the EU, the country risks exiting Erasmus too. FRANCE 24’s Caroline Clarkson reports.


Trust the Brits to spoil the party. Erasmus, the EU’s flagship student exchange programme, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. But the milestone is overshadowed by uncertainty over the UK’s future in the scheme. Britain’s narrow vote to leave the EU on June 23, 2016 means it may well exit the Erasmus programme too, although nothing has been decided yet.

Named after a Dutch Renaissance-era philosopher, Erasmus was launched in 1987 with 11 members, including the UK. Since then, the scheme has enabled more than four million students to study in another European country by funding their grants and waiving their tuition fees. In 2014, it became Erasmus+ and expanded to include apprentices, volunteers, staff and youth exchanges and even jobseekers. Meanwhile, the number of countries involved has tripled over the years. Today, Erasmus has 33 full members, including several non-EU nations such as Norway and Iceland. It also boasts more than 160 partner countries.

Anyone who, like myself, has been lucky enough to take part in Erasmus no doubt has fond memories of their year abroad. It allows students to discover a new country, culture and campus, meet fellow students from around the world and – crucially – communicate with them in a common language. Some even manage to meet their future partner: it is estimated that there are one million "Erasmus babies", the offspring of couples who met through the programme. (During my Erasmus year outside Paris, precisely one such couple got together; they now live in Spain and have two children). Here in France, Erasmus has become synonymous with the 2002 Cédric Klapisch film "L’Auberge espagnole" (also known as "Pot Luck" or "The Spanish Apartment"), about the adventures of a young Frenchman on an Erasmus exchange in Barcelona.

English-language trailer for "L'Auberge espagnole"

Of course, Erasmus will continue after Brexit. But British students and other young people risk losing out – a cruel irony, given that a clear majority of young Britons voted to stay in the EU. And they are far from the only ones. The UK is a pivotal member of Erasmus: in 2015, it was the third most popular destination overall for students volunteering, studying or training abroad, and the number one destination for students from France, no doubt keen to practice their English. If the UK leaves the programme, other young Europeans would also miss out on valuable opportunities to broaden their horizons.

Still, nothing has been decided yet. While the UK remains an EU member state, the status quo prevails. For the 2017-18 academic year, Erasmus exchanges are unaffected and the same is expected for 2018-19. The fate of Britain’s Erasmus membership will be decided as part of the negotiations between London and Brussels after the UK triggers article 50 to leave the bloc. Those talks are expected to start in the coming months and last at least two years.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Marianne de Brunhoff, in charge of European and international relations and cooperation at the French education ministry. While emphasising that "Brexit has not come into force", she discussed the possibility of a UK exit from Erasmus. Regarding students from France, de Brunhoff said she would expect the EU scheme to help them turn to other "English-speaking countries or those where there are a lot of courses in English, for example the Nordic countries or the Netherlands". However, she cautioned that it was "much too early" to observe a shift in student demand towards destinations like Ireland, as current figures are too recent to reflect the Brexit vote and the uncertainty it brings.

Could the UK opt to stay in Erasmus? After all, several non-EU countries are full members. But they have to pay into the programme – and they have accepted the key EU principle of free movement of people. With British PM Theresa May announcing a "hard Brexit" and vowing stricter controls on immigration, such a scenario appears unlikely. In her January 17 speech outlining her Brexit plans, May made no direct mention of Erasmus, but did say the UK might want to participate in "some specific European programmes". However, Brussels has an interest in not letting the UK cherry-pick the best parts of EU membership: it needs to deter other countries from leaving the bloc.

FRANCE 24 asked Ruth Sinclair-Jones, Director of the Erasmus+ UK National Agency, what she wanted from the negotiations. "The number one priority should be to try to make sure that the UK can stay fully participating in Erasmus+, because of the benefits to everyone, not just the UK," she said. "But if that’s not possible, I would absolutely want an alternative scheme to be in place, so that the next generation of UK young people don’t miss out on the benefits of international engagement with their counterparts in Europe."

When it comes to alternative schemes, lessons may be learned from the Alps. Switzerland, which has never joined the EU, used to be a full member of Erasmus. But in 2014, Swiss voters narrowly backed stricter immigration controls in a referendum. As the result violated EU freedom of movement rules, Brussels suspended Switzerland’s participation in Erasmus and demoted it to a mere partner country. In order to allow mobility to continue nonetheless, Switzerland set up its own student exchange scheme, the SEMP (Swiss-European Mobility Programme). This is based on a series of bilateral exchange agreements and sees students receive a scholarship instead of an Erasmus grant.

Optimists see the SEMP as a good model for the UK to imitate, arguing that British universities will continue to attract students whatever happens, partly thanks to the English language. But with no funding from Brussels, Switzerland has to finance the scheme itself. In 2016 alone, the government spent £20 million (€22.9 million) on it. If the UK were to copy the Swiss model, it would also have to pay for its own scheme.

It is important to note that Switzerland has now passed legislation stopping short of imposing immigration quotas, thereby mitigating the referendum result. That compromise allows it to start talks with the EU to fully rejoin Erasmus – although these have not yet started and could take over a year to complete. A cautionary tale?

But let’s get back to the Brexit negotiations. At this stage, two possible options stand out: either the UK stays in Erasmus and pays into the system, or it crashes out and has to set up (and fully finance) its own exchange scheme.

For now, Ruth Sinclair-Jones, the Erasmus+ UK director, is optimistic. Speaking to FRANCE 24, she welcomed "the enormous enthusiasm there is in the UK for the benefits of mobility to continue, regardless of EU membership" and said she had observed similar enthusiasm abroad. "What is encouraging is that the other member states are also very keen that the UK should continue to participate in Erasmus+," she pointed out, noting that "the Germans have been particularly vocal".

In other words, there seems to be some political will on both sides to keep the UK in Erasmus. "I’m optimistic that some priority is going to be given to this in the negotiations," Sinclair-Jones told FRANCE 24, adding that "it would diminish the programme for everyone if the UK was not participating".

But there are still the nitty-gritty legal aspects to consider. Let’s be clear: being in Erasmus means accepting freedom of movement. With Downing Street pushing for a "hard Brexit", this scenario appears increasingly unlikely.

Marianne de Brunhoff, from the French education ministry, sums it up this way: "What we want is for as many countries as possible to be associated with this Erasmus system – which benefits a huge number of young Europeans – but under normal conditions for everyone: either countries that belong to the EU or associate countries that respect fundamental EU principles."

The EU is generally good at forging compromises. But when it comes to Erasmus, would it really be able to make an exception for the UK on freedom of movement after suspending Switzerland for the same reason? Watch this space.

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