Late Erasmus founder Lenarduzzi said Europe ‘as we conceived it’ is blocked

Domenico Lenarduzzi (1936-2019), the 'father' of Erasmus programme. [European Youth Day/Flick'r]

To honour the legacy of late Erasmus “father” Domenico Lenarduzzi, who passed away on Tuesday (3 December), EURACTIV is reposting an interview with him that was originally published on 22 September 2011. 

The Erasmus programme which allows thousands of students to spend time studying in other EU countries, could not have been launched today, the “father” of the initiative, Domenico Lenarduzzi, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Domenico Lenarduzzi is known as the “father” of the Erasmus programme, launched in 1987 to fund university student mobility. Erasmus was behind countless initiatives supporting education and training across Europe

He spoke to EURACTIV’s former Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti.

You are known as the founding father of Erasmus. The new European budget will increase funding for student exchange programmes by 71% under the Erasmus banner. It’s a great success, I suppose. Did you anticipate this success in 1987, the year Erasmus was launched?

Yes, because the European construction had to be done for the citizens of tomorrow because the young people of the time were more open. During that period, we noted that Europe was a success from an economic standpoint but that citizens did not feel involved in its construction.

It was something that was done by organisations at the intergovernmental level, rather than being linked to citizenship as such. And so, we thought it would be useful to involve citizens directly.

What are the three or four main stages of this programme? How did the idea of a head of unit manage to get so far?

I have always been convinced that Europe can be built directly with the citizens, with young people.

And so, we started facilitating small-scale exchanges between young people. That is so that they could get to know each other so that they could have a dialogue and benefit from cultural opportunities between different countries.

That’s how we made the first exchanges, but with extremely limited resources. And I must say that at the state level, they all said “bravo, bravo, bravo”, calling it a good idea.

But the moment we talked about the necessary budget, they changed their attitude.

They then said: “But why are we sending young people around? Instead, let us circulate teachers and give teachers the opportunity to go to other countries and the budget would be much smaller.

We responded by saying: “No, that’s not what we want at all. What we want is the involvement of young people.”

It took a lot of persuading to get this initiative off the ground slowly.

Today, about 200,000 young people participate in the Erasmus programme every year. And the budget will increase from €8.7 to €15 billion for the next budget period 2014-2020. There will undoubtedly be many more young people who will be able to benefit from it. What were your handicaps when you created this project? If you had any advice to give to heads of unit to develop similar ambitious projects, what would it be?

The first observation is that today, we could no longer carry out a similar initiative because currently, we plan the budget for a specific period such as from 2014 to 2020, for which the budget for 2017, 2020 and so on is decided.

We, therefore, have a straitjacket that prevents us from taking initiatives other than those planned when the budget projection is scheduled.

There is no longer this freedom of initiative. This is a fundamental difference. Today, you are told, “Tell us what you will do in 2020.”

However, my strategy was completely different. I didn’t want to lock myself into any medium- or long-term programming because there was not enough open-mindedness to do so, and we had to take advantage of the moment.

You know, the presidency changed every six months – and above all, through personal contacts, it was necessary to convince the presidency every six months of the importance of the project as such and give them the impression that they were the ones who were carrying out this project.

It has always been this way: it was the Commission that took the initiative, but the member states wanted to take advantage of it by saying: “We have achieved this or that”.

You were one of the heads of unit, who has risen to the top position of director-general. Do you have the impression that today, someone in the head of unit position would have much less opportunity to develop innovative projects and less chance of a career?

I am of that opinion.

I know that today, I wouldn’t be successful. It would be impossible for there to be a repeat of the experience I had. I often think about it. It’s entirely out of the question.

And do you think that the fact that no real initiatives are coming out of the Commission is bogging it down, just like it is for Europe?

The world is indeed changing. We are no longer in an era of people who dreamed of a particular Europe. Things are changing.

But today, it would be impossible to repeat what I have experienced because, as I was saying, we are in the middle of a vision dedicated to being projected into the future, and not only from a budgetary point of view. And I would even say in terms of planning.

The difference between the terms is very important. These days, you are being asked to ‘plan’, which is a bit of a Soviet term. In the Soviet era, we planned, we said “you do this, that, that,” and the sense of initiative was being excluded.

And today, that’s what’s happening – we’re planning. We say when we accept something, “but we have to plan because I have to defend my budget by 2020”. And we have to be precise in everything we do and, above all, stay within what has been decided.

This means that it would not be possible to implement individual initiatives that were taken in the past.

Where do you think an innovative initiative can come from to move Europe forward? For example, do you believe, as you mentioned, that the citizens’ initiative can be a driving force that triggers the renewal of ideas?

I often ask myself the question: what will bring new dynamism, new initiatives? Could this even be achieved today? No, I don’t think so.

There are talks of amending the treaties to strengthen the eurozone.

Yes, but as always, if things are done, they are primarily done for economics reasons, without really taking the point of view of the citizen into account. And this has almost always been the case.

What about these citizens’ initiative? You don’t really believe in that, do you?

Not today, no. I don’t believe in it.

In the past, I knew that we had to go through citizens’ initiatives. But today, I do not see how this will lead to anything. Today, they will very clearly be confronted with what has been planned for 2020.

So, Europe is blocked.

Europe, as we have conceived it, is blocked, simply because it is blocked on the budget. There is no more space left.

Let us return to education, which is not a strong competence of the Union. Do you believe that the major strategies – the Lisbon Agenda and its successor “Europe 2020” – will help provide sufficient legal bases to achieve a Europe for education?

Today, education has a more fundamental role than it did 20 years ago.

Today, it is said that if we want to build Europe, we will have to rely on education, education and education. We certainly have a broader conception of education than in the past.

However, saying his from a theoretical point of view is one thing. Achieving this is a whole different ball-game. I do not believe that we will have more legal bases today than in the past.

What are your thoughts on the re-branding of all the education programmes (“Youth in Action”, “Erasmus Mundus”, “Leonardo”, etc.) under the same Erasmus umbrella? Would you be in favour of such an idea?

Yes and no. I have always been against it because the current proposal is a proposal that we had made in the past. And I was personally sceptical about it because, although it is conceivable from a design angle, it is not from a budgetary one.

It is not in our interest to unify everything because by unifying the different programmes, we do not achieve a “2+2+2” scenario. Maybe we will get to 10 with one programme, while we obtain 15 or even 20 for the others.

But now I’m talking about the period when I was the general director. Today, given that everything is programmed, if there is a political will to amplify, then yes. A 71% increase is something positive.

You joined the Commission in 1965 and left ten years ago. In your opinion, what was the high point of European integration?

The key moment was the Fontainebleau Summit under the French Presidency. Mitterrand said to himself that Europe could not only be constructed from an economic point of view but that it was necessary to build a Europe of citizens.

I was directly involved because I had the education division at the time. And so, we turned to the education unit to say: “Make us a project for the citizens of Europe”.

That was in 1984.

It took you three years to create Erasmus, only three years!

But in three years we have done extraordinary things because everyone wanted it, even if the legal bases did not exist.

Now, it is said that Europe is at a time of deadlock and there is indeed a somewhat similar feeling that something is needed to move it forward. Do you think that Europe has the necessary “leadership” to move forward – Merkel, Sarkozy… And do you believe in economic and fiscal integration?

I believe in it. But it is the events that drive us. As always, you have to face great difficulties to have the courage to make decisions that you would never have made in normal negotiations.

The problems of the eurozone force us to make decisions. We realise in this crisis that we will only be able to face it if the European Union equips itself with the means to deal with it. The budgetary coordination of member states was inconceivable in the past.

It is a pity, however, that Merkel and Sarkozy are the only ones leading Europe.

For me, this is dramatic because it is not Europe. It is merely the leadership of two member states that ignore everything else entirely.

This implies that a community context no longer exists. Rather, it has become a state context of two leaders. It is true that in the past, leaders have always been necessary. Whether Mitterrand and Kohl or anyone else, but this was done in a different spirit.

Today, what is being promoted is not the community spirit, but it is Sarkozy and Merkel who will have lunch together and then impose what they have agreed. And you never hear about the others.

The community spirit, as such, no longer exists. And I think we are moving forward because we are driven by events, not because of a real conception.

So, not thanks to leadership. If you had to express a wish for this Europe that is moving forward staggeringly, what would it be?

First of all, I think it must be said that we can never go back. And this is already something essential. When you are told that Europe is in danger,’ you must not believe it. We will no longer be able to do without the euro. We will no longer be able to do without Europe.

On the contrary, we will have to move forward and probably even more so than today.

We cannot go backwards and, therefore, the Europe of tomorrow requires a deeper integration and a much more important achievement through the role of citizenship.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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