With David Lammy stating recently that “reconnecting” with the European Union would be Labour’s “number one” foreign policy priority, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a future Labour government will seek to build a closer relationship with Europe, not just in terms of trade but also diplomacy and cultural ties.
Just this week, Keir Starmer promised to unblock access to Horizon, a key EU funding programme for scientific research, albeit just hours before the government announced it had secured a deal to do just that.
Yet one obvious potential win is rarely mentioned – that of the UK’s future participation in Erasmus+, the student exchange programme which facilitated over 200,000 British students to study and work across Europe until the UK government ended our participation in 2021.
The Tories’ opposition to Erasmus looked ideological
Through Erasmus, I spent a year in Paris as part of my languages degree; I also studied alongside Erasmus students during my time at the University of Warwick. This year of linguistic immersion allowed me to achieve fluency in French, but it also gave me increased confidence, widened horizons and the ability to adapt to and navigate a very different culture, all of which are hugely beneficial to young people and attractive to employers.
Rejoining Erasmus does not mean rejoining the EU, with third countries able to participate to the programme to varying degrees as ‘associate countries’.
In fact, the EU offered during the Withdrawal Agreement for the UK to remain part of the programme, but the UK “decided not to participate” after the two sides were “unable to agree on the cost of Britain’s continued membership”, according to Michel Barner.
But it was hard not to see this decision also as ideological, a fear that a new generation continuing to have the opportunities to work and study in Europe, through the support of an EU-funded programme, might not reach the same conclusions about Brexit, or about British and European identity, that the Conservative party sadly has.
The government’s replacement Turing Scheme is flawed
The government’s official response was that its flagship new Turing Scheme would provide an adequate replacement, but the programme has been plagued by a number of flaws.
Universities receive less funding than they did under Erasmus, and its short-term funding cycles mean they cannot give students certainty about how much funding they will receive, or when it will arrive. Some have had to self-fund their initial months of study overseas, an option only possible for those with significant family support.
Looking at the website for my alma mater, it was concerning to read their advice to current languages students that, “If you go on your Year Abroad in the EU you will receive Erasmus+ funding until May 2023. After that we hope that you will be able to receive some funding via Turing.”
This lack of certainty will put off students from studying abroad, leading them to miss out one what could be one of the most enriching experiences of their lives.
The branding around the Turing programme seemed to be part of the general notion at the time of the referendum, one we don’t hear much about anymore, that by throwing off the shackles of EU membership, Britain could replace not just its trading relationships but its geopolitical ties with other regions – so that students who would have once studied in France or Spain would now instead head off to India or China.
Of course some students will have the means and desire to study further afield, but the fact that European languages are the ones most commonly taught in British schools, and therefore studied in British universities, means that the majority of students who study overseas do so in order to develop their skills in one or more European languages, a fact which isn’t going to change any time soon.
Erasmus allowed less well-off students to study abroad
Erasmus also provided financial support to British students – when I moved to Paris, an Erasmus grant of around 2000 euros was invaluable in helping with relocation costs and the deposit for a rented room, and provided a cushion until my first (modest) paycheck, from my job as a languages assistant in a French school, arrived.
For students from wealthy backgrounds, this might not be a deciding factor, but for those of us with no history of university participation in our families, let alone studying abroad, the guarantee of financial support made a real difference to making the potentially daunting prospect of spending a year abroad seem realistic and affordable.
Erasmus students also made British universities more cosmopolitan places, with students from across Europe bringing new perspectives into seminars and (in my experience at least) hosting some of the best house parties too.
The latter might sound trivial, but it’s these experiences which forge links between young people from across the continent, increasing inter-cultural understanding, sparking friendships that become lifelong personal and professional contacts, and broadening the horizons of young Brits from the kinds of backgrounds where getting to know people from other countries is rare.
Erasmus can boost UK-EU relations
There are practical considerations too. Through funding EU students to come to the UK for fixed periods of study, Erasmus contributed an estimated £243 million a year to the UK economy, and brought student revenue to university towns across the country.
It generated cultural understanding and goodwill towards Britain in a cohort who have gone on to positions in public life across the European Union – invaluable for a generation of political leaders who have had to navigate an extremely tricky period of EU-UK relations.
Former EU President Ursula von den Leyen has often spoken fondly of her experiences studying in London in the 1970s, an anglophilia that not even her dealings with the most intransigent of Brexiteers could completely eradicate.
A cohort whose teenage years were marred by Covid, are now being deprived of the opportunities to work and study overseas which previous generations enjoyed, thanks to the results of a referendum they were too young to vote in, and whose result is now widely considered a failure.
Keir Starmer has spoken of his desire to widen educational opportunities for young people, and surely a commitment to rejoin Erasmus can form a small but significant part of that agenda.
Labour needs an offer for young people let down by Brexit
Rejoining Erasmus would be politically symbolic, demonstrating a real commitment to the future of EU-UK cultural and diplomatic relations, and would help demonstrate the benefits of EU membership to a new generation of young people, whose views, in time, will shape Britain’s future relationship with Europe.
With Brexit currently less popular than ever, it’s hard to see the issue of the UK rejoining Erasmus as risking too much of a backlash – I appreciate it’s not a priority for the majority of voters, but nonetheless would make a real difference to the life experiences of many young people.
With a new seven-year funding cycle for Erasmus commencing in 2027, the time is right for Labour, if they are in government by 2024, to commit now to the UK rejoining.