After 4,5 years of negotiations, the EU and the UK announced on Thursday, 24 December 2020, Christmas Eve, that they had managed to agree on the terms of their future cooperation and a free trade agreement.
The Brexit withdrawal deal contains new rules for how the EU and UK will live, work and trade together. Also, British PM Boris Johnson has announced that the UK will not continue to participate in the EU Erasmus programme, allowing hundreds of thousands of students to study at some of Europe's top learning institutions. It will be replaced with a new scheme named after the mathematician Alan Turing.
Many British youth and European academics regret the end of Erasmus. Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon even spoke of "cultural vandalism". Only students at universities in Northern Ireland will continue to participate in Erasmus as part of an arrangement with the Irish government.But why did the UK PM kill Erasmus for students? A year ago, he promised in the House of Commons that the Erasmus scheme was safe in his hands.
The Erasmus programme supports education, training, youth and sport in Europe. In 2017, the programme turned 30 years and evolved into Erasmus+. It has now opportunities for people of all ages and a wide range of organisations.
It favours exchanges between university students and academic personnel, enabling them to study and be trained in other European countries and develop a feeling of understanding for the different kinds of cultures in the continent. It is about sharing cultures, learning language and each other's habits, ways of living. However, it is much more than that.
Erasmus is probably the most important flagship EU programme for European integration as it supports the creation of a European public sphere and a common identity. It was launched in June 1987, the year that I graduated from the VUB University of Brussels. Although I am a little bit disappointed because it was not introduced a few years before to participate myself, I am delighted that my children had the privilege to take part.
Today, Erasmus is one of the most successful projects for shaping European cohesion and should be more developed in the future. It is probably one of the key instruments to help creating a better connection between European citizens, a shared identity and, provide more acceptance for a united Europe.
It is the best guarantee for peace and the future of the continent in its whole. The programme is named after the Dutch philosopher Erasmus (1469-1536), a self-proclaimed "citizen of the world". He was an opponent of dogmatism, who lived and worked in many places in Europe to expand his knowledge and gain new insights. He also shaped popular culture. His dictionary rescued phrases such as "breaking the ice", "teaching an old dog new tricks" and "leaving no stone unturned" from obscurity.
For more than 30 years, the EU has funded the Erasmus programme. It has enabled over three million European students to spend part of their studies at another higher education institution or an organisation in Europe.
According to the former Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth EU Commissioner, Androula Vassiliou, Erasmus is unique because it creates the real Europeans. In my interview with her for my book Rebranding Europe back in 2017, she declared:
"Honestly, I have not come across a person who has been an Erasmus beneficiary and who is not a pro-European. I see it with Heads of State. (Former Italian PM) Matteo Renzi is an Erasmus beneficiary. Also, the PM of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel and (former) EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström as well. Erasmus makes you really feel European. You send young people abroad, and they get to know new people, new cultures, they meet their future colleagues from all over Europe. They get the feeling and they get the real sense of communication, of cooperation of understanding which are the real values of Europe".
That is the reason that Boris Johnson killed Erasmus. Like a vampire's fear for the cross, Johnson is afraid of a common European identity and common European values leading to the United States of Europe - a real European Union.
Erasmus brings opportunities to students, staff, trainees, teachers, volunteers and more. It is not just about Europe or Europeans either - with Erasmus, people from all over the world can access opportunities. The so-called Erasmus generation learns to face the challenges and the potential of the international dimension. The program helps participants to develop a global vision indispensable in every job, profession or business activity.
Thanks to Erasmus, we now have the first truly European generation. And it is thanks to Erasmus and other programmes like Comenius, Leonardo and Grundtvig, that the EU has created a Europe of knowledge and is providing a response to the major challenges of our time: promote lifelong learning, encourage access to education for everybody, and help people acquire recognised qualifications and skills.
The main benefit of the Brexit withdrawal agreement of 24 December 2020 is that trust between the EU and the UK doesn't take another dive. It is a good start for all negotiations to come. It is no coincidence that the Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said that "Europe again sees the UK as a reliable partner". Nothing more than that.