After years of uncertainty, the United Kingdom finally left the European Union on 31st January. Given how socially, politically and economically intertwined the UK and EU have been since the early 1970’s, this event marks a watershed moment and attention has already shifted towards the EU-UK negotiations which will dominate the political agenda for months to come. These talks, which are due to take place during the so-called ‘transition period,’ will last until the end of the year and beyond and will ultimately define the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Brexit will inevitably entail a weakening of ties between the EU and the UK as the latter withdraws from European institutions, rolls back EU legislation and begins to forge alliances with other, non-EU states. Despite this, there is still scope for retaining certain EU laws as well as continuing to participate in certain EU projects and programmes. One such programme within which Britain should continue to participate is the Erasmus scheme.
The UK’s continued participation in the Erasmus programme was thrown into doubt earlier this year when it was announced that retaining Britain’s membership within the programme was not going to be prioritised in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. This came as a result of MPs voting against an amendment to the Brexit bill on 8th January, which would have compelled the government to prioritise maintaining their participation in the Erasmus scheme. This led to the dissemination of factually incorrect statements such as this following claim from Member of the European Parliament Molly Scott Cato: “The Tory government has voted against continued involvement in the Erasmus scheme that allowed young people to spend time in other EU countries.” Public outcry ensued as statements criticising the government’s decision proliferated across numerous digital platforms. Although the anger expressed by many online was based on false information, it is nevertheless encouraging to see such passionate support for maintaining participation in Erasmus. This energy must now be directed towards campaigning for Britain’s membership in the Erasmus programme as failing this, withdrawal is a very realistic prospect. The case for Erasmus must be made.
The Erasmus programme, established in 1987, has allowed hundreds of thousands of British citizens to volunteer, study and work abroad. In 2017 alone, over 16,000 students participated in the programme and this year, thousands of students studying abroad remain dependent on Erasmus funding. Without this funding, many of those students, especially those from working class backgrounds, would be financially incapable of studying, working or volunteering abroad. Those who intend to volunteer and study abroad are most likely to be affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the Erasmus programme since these students are the least likely to have other sources of income to support their programme. However, students who intend to work abroad are also likely to be greatly affected since Erasmus students are often poorly paid as employers on the continent work on the assumption that the student is supported by Erasmus funding. In a post-Brexit scenario, it is unlikely that student employers would be willing to pay higher wages to compensate for British students’ lack of Erasmus funding. Consequently, they are likely to miss out on work placements which will instead be given to other EU nationals who are backed by the Erasmus programme.
Should the UK withdraw from the Erasmus programme, not only would it deprive British citizens of the opportunity to study, work and volunteer abroad, it would also discourage students from studying foreign languages. This, coupled with decreased opportunities for living abroad, will inevitably foster an insular mindset, consistent with the ideologies which fuelled the Brexit campaign. Relative to our European partners, the UK already compares poorly in terms of language learning. According to the British Council, 62% of Britons speak only English which officially makes them the worst language learners in Europe. This is only likely to worsen if the UK does withdraw from the Erasmus programme as many students would be unable to fulfil the year abroad component of their language degree without financial support. It is highly likely therefore, that Britain’s withdrawal from Erasmus will lead to fewer students studying foreign languages and this will inevitably stifle and repress British nationals’ sense of European identity.
According to studies carried out by the European Commission (EC) in 2019, 58% of Brit’s consider themselves to be EU citizens. A separate study, also carried out by the EC, found that 47% of British nationals identified as both European and British thus demonstrating that nearly half of British people consider their identity to be composed of two different elements. A British identity and a European identity are therefore not mutually exclusive, it is possible to feel both British and European at the same time. Cutting off Erasmus funding will prevent young British citizens from adopting a sense of European identity and thus suppress what has become an integral element of modern British identity. It is through experiencing different cultures and living in different countries that a sense of European identity is fostered and through preventing the younger generations from having these experiences, they will be unable to develop the same European mindset that recent generations have adopted.
Depriving future generations of students from being able to live in other EU states could therefore be seen as a systematic attempt to strengthen British identity at the expense of British-European identity. Should the British government decide to withdraw from the Erasmus programme, the move could be interpreted as an attempt to reject the European ‘other’ in favour of strengthening the British ‘in-group.’ This would constitute an attempt to swim against the tide of globalisation as well as an attempt at undoing the process of Europeanisation, which has dominated British politics and society for decades. Inevitably, the process of Europeanisation will be reversed in the political sphere as Britain withdraws from the European Convention on Human Rights and regains numerous legislative powers that were ceded to European institutions. However, withdrawing from Erasmus would also be an attempt to undo the Europeanisation of society as it would decrease Britons’ exposure to European culture, whilst an inevitable decrease in language students would also minimise exposure to other European languages. The withdrawal from Erasmus would therefore create a set of conditions in the UK that would be conducive to a decrease in exposure to European cultures and languages; a sense of British isolationism and a more narrow interpretation of what it means to be British will fill the void left by what was once a thriving British-European culture. These conditions will create a more isolated, inward-looking British society that undoes fifty years worth of community building and political progress on a European level.
The issue of Erasmus is not merely a question of remaining a part of a financial programme that benefits British students, it is also a question of what kind of society will be forged post-Brexit. Although there will be a de-Europeanisation of British institutions and of British politics in general, this doesn’t necessarily entail a de-Europeanisation of society, and why should it? Retaining Erasmus will allow younger generations to continue to be exposed to European culture and allow them to engage with Europe through studying European languages and through experiencing day-to-day life in other EU states. This could create a set of conditions which allows European culture to thrive in the UK despite having withdrawn from the political union. Remaining part of the Erasmus programme must therefore be a priority in the upcoming Brexit negotiations however, the British government has already demonstrated that they are unwilling to prioritise retaining membership in the programme. Universities and students must therefore work collectively in order to ensure that Britain’s Erasmus membership remains at the forefront of the political agenda. Continued membership in the Erasmus programme would ensure the survival of European culture and the perpetuation of a British-European identity in post-Brexit society. Seen in this way, the fight for Erasmus is not merely a fight over student funding, rather it is a matter of preserving a European culture that has so greatly benefitted Britain since the establishment of the European Community.
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