Does the Erasmus program really contribute to the construction of a solid EU identity?

Marianne Thyssen Erasmus +

Marianne Thyssen, Member of the EC in charge of Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, and Tibor Navracsics, Member of the EC in charge of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, attend the launch ceremony of the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus program at the European Parliament. Marianne Thyssen in front of the panel of the 30th anniversary of Erasmus. © European Union , 2017 / Source: EC – Audiovisual Service / Photo: Georges Boulougouris.

This article was exclusively written for the Sting by one of our passionate readers Mr Luca Arfini. The opinions expressed within reflect only the writer’s views and not The European Sting’s position on the issue.

Right now, in a period of several crises challenging the EU’s stability, the sense of belonging that the EU citizens have towards the European Union matters more than ever. Migrations are influencing Europe and the European identity of its citizens, yet there is not only one type of migration.

Indeed, Favell claims the existence of three kinds of migration: the traditional ‘ethnic’ migration from non-European countries to European countries, the intra-European migration composed of EU citizens, and the migration from Eastern Europe to Western Europe which places itself among the other two. Many studies focused on the relationship that is present between intra-European migration and EU identity, like Rother and Nebe’s research, show a particular correlation among who lived in an EU country other than their national one and the sense of closeness to the European Union.

Nevertheless, it is the generation of young people in Europe that exercise more and more the right of free movement through the numerous exchange opportunities offered by the EU; undertaking temporary migration in various European countries to enhance job prospects and to live an intercultural experience. The most popular program for exchange students is undoubtedly the Erasmus program, which was created in 1987.

One of its primary objectives is to promote common European values and create a sense of belonging to a community through education and youth work. The EU commissioner Thyssen, in his speech for the 30th anniversary of the Erasmus program that occurred in 2017, stated: “In 1987, Erasmus began with just 3,000 participants in 11 countries. The idea was to give students an insight – and in many cases, their first- into different cultures and ways of life”.

In the article 2 of the Council Decision of 15 June 1987 to establish the program, it is stated that one of the primary objectives of the Erasmus is: “to strengthen the interaction between citizens in different Member States with a view to consolidating the concept of a People’s Europe”. Therefore, since the beginning, the Erasmus program was also created with the intention of increasing the students’ interactions across the EU Member States to strengthen their awareness of the concept of European citizenship.

The launch of the Erasmus program, according to Maiworm, signified the beginning of the internationalization of higher education in Europe. In the first year 1987-1988, 3244 students coming from 11 different European countries took part in the program; while in 2013-2014 the number increased to 272,000 students, who spent a study period abroad with 33 countries participating in the program: the 28 EU Member States with the addition of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Turkey and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

I conducted a study to investigate the influence that taking part in the Erasmus program in Denmark had in the construction of a European identity of 57 students, both men and women between 20 to 27 years old. I wanted to discover if there was a direct connection between this intercultural experience and the sense of belonging to a European community; whether meeting new people coming from EU (and non-EU) countries could help students in feeling more European, or if it makes them simply globally-minded individuals.

I obtained the data for my analysis through an online survey with open-ended questions, which I published as a google doc in various Facebook groups of Erasmus student in Denmark and that has been shared on the different Facebook pages of the Danish section of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) during all the month of November 2017.

The majority of the students reported that they chose Denmark as the destination for their study abroad period because they were interested in the Scandinavian system and culture. Denmark was also seen as the right place to live, because of its high-quality education and high level of spoken English. However, during the exchange program, most of the students’ social interactions appeared to be rarely with the locals and mostly with other Erasmus or international students.

Furthermore, the preponderance of the students connected European citizenship with freedom of movement, which was described as the most important European value. The relevance of this EU right was also reinforced by the comparison with other International students coming from outside Europe, who had to undertake a very long and complicated bureaucratic process to stay in Denmark.

Nonetheless, a great number of students declared that their knowledge on the EU right of free movement did not improve after the end of their Erasmus. The main reason was that they already possessed a certain knowledge on the topic and, during their study-period abroad, they had almost no chances to have a better understanding of EU rights. In general, the students seemed to feel more part of a group of international students abroad, living in the same country for a short period and experiencing the same condition of being an expatriate, rather than part of a European community sharing EU values. Some students also affirmed that they feel European, but the Erasmus program didn’t increase or change their attitude towards Europe.

They already felt European before going abroad, and they already had some prior knowledge or interest in the European Union. A small group of students said instead that studying abroad and meeting people from different countries reinforced their nationalist feelings. They might feel as Europeans, but they put their National identity before any types of European feeling.  However, every single student that took part in the survey agreed on drawing the Erasmus program as a positive experience that all the students should do at least once during their studies.

In conclusion, According to the results of my survey, no strong correlation appears to exist between the Erasmus program and the building of a solid sense of Europeanness. Indeed, most of the students met and interacted with other students coming from both European and non-European countries; this increased their closeness with different cultures and their knowledge of other nations, but it didn’t necessarily enhance their sense of belonging to the European Union.

The majority of survey’s participants declared that the Erasmus program did not affect their European identity, either because they already felt European before leaving or because they felt more as citizens of the world rather than European citizens. Nevertheless, these findings don’t diminish the relevance of the Erasmus program as an enriching cultural and social experience. In fact, all the students that took part in the survey claimed that their sojourn abroad helped them: to break down prejudices, to be more independent and to make long lasting friendships.

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