If the Brexit negotiations do not secure the United Kingdom’s participation in the hugely popular Erasmus programme, the effect on Wales in particular “would be massive”, according to the former EU official credited with helping get the scheme off the ground in 1987.
Dr Hywel Ceri Jones, who between 1973 and 1998 served as Director of Education and then Director-General for Social Policy at the European Commission, has warned that Wales would face a “formidable challenge” if talks do not yield an agreement on the EU-funded programme.
The Welshman was one of the main driving forces within the EU executive when Erasmus first began to take shape in the 1970s and 1980s. But he is now concerned that his efforts will be squandered.
While Wales’s devolved government has publicly supported the UK’s continued involvement in its white paper on the issue, the UK government in London has still not made its own position clear.
“The Welsh authorities will have a massive mountain to climb if it has to replace the range of European and international partnerships to help ensure that our young people at all levels are equipped to succeed in our globalised and globalising world,” Dr Jones told the BBC.
“The Welsh Government has in principle recommended continuing with Erasmus, if Brexit happens, but we don’t know what the UK position will be. I want to support the Welsh Government but their efforts are in isolation of what the UK government is doing,” he added.
Erasmus participation has been going from strength to strength in the UK, with the numbers of students and young people going abroad increasing every year since 2008. Nearly 3,000 people from Wales were funded to study or work in another country last year.
This year marks 30 years of the programme and at a ceremony in Cardiff in November, Dr Jones warned that the sheer scale of the scheme is “still not widely appreciated” and explained that the scheme’s latest incarnation, Erasmus+, is mistakenly considered a pure inter-university system, when it actually involves schools and vocational training as well.
Although the UK government has in fact pledged to meet all financial obligations made under Erasmus+ while the country remains a member state, the post-March 2019 period will remain a grey area until the Brexit negotiations move on to the next phase of talks.
Dr Jones recently told the Erasmus+ network that the programme will have involved more than 5.5 million students and 9 million people in total around the world by 2020, adding that his “birthday wish” would be for the UK government to secure the country’s future in the scheme.
These fears about the future of Erasmus come against the backdrop of a disagreement about the programme’s past, as various figures involved with setting up the scheme each claim they were the ones to have the original idea for an EU-level exchange.
Professor Sofia Corradi has proclaimed herself to be “Mamma Erasmus” and her efforts were recognised as such in February last year when the European Academy of Yuste Foundation selected her as the winner of the 10th edition of the Carlo V European Award.
Before Erasmus was conceived, she toiled to have her educational qualifications recognised in both the United States and her native Italy. This idea of mutual recognition would go on to form a crucial part of the exchange programme.
But her claim to be the “founder” of Erasmus has been disputed by a number of people, including fellow Italian Domenico Lenarduzzi, a colleague of Dr Hywel Ceri Jones during their time working for the European Commission.
As head of the EU executive’s education policies at the time, Lenarduzzi worked closely with Jones, as well as Franck Bianchieri, who would go on to found the European Students’ Forum (AEGEE).
Bianchieri claims to have convinced then-French President François Mitterrand to support the proposal for a pan-European programme and helped the Commission convince the European Court of Justice that education was an area of community competence.
Jones, who came to the Commission from a post at the University of Sussex, says that he proposed the idea of developing joint study programmes between seats of learning before and after he arrived in Brussels.
But he also credits the late Altiero Spinelli for pushing for a strong educational aspect to the EU before his retirement from the EU executive in 1976 and British-German Commissioner Ralf Dahrendorf for securing the first political breakthrough with Europe’s education ministers.
During his speech at the 30th anniversary celebrations in Cardiff, the Welshman also praised the many universities that have participated in the scheme for making Erasmus a success and keeping it alive.
Competition Commissioner Peter Sutherland was responsible for formally proposing the Erasmus idea during the brief period when his portfolio also included education in 1985. His head of cabinet, Michel Richonnier, has also been credited for his work in drafting the proposal and ultimately securing a large-scale budget for the programme.
Sutherland’s successor in charge of education, Spain’s first ever Commissioner, Manuel Marin, also played an important role in launching Erasmus, as it was during his mandate that the proposal negotiated the Council of Ministers.
The Spaniard is well remembered for his decision to withdraw the proposal when it looked likely the member states would scrap the student grants part of the draft.
Due to the large-scale nature of the programme, which is often touted as one of the EU’s most successful and tangible contributions to society, it is hard to pin down one ‘mother’ or ‘father’ of the project.
It may well be that the future of the scheme needs more attention than squabbles about the lineage of Erasmus.