Creating Europeans – the challenges of Erasmus and Europe

When I got off the bus outside Brussels on an autumn day in 1998, I became part of what was known already then as the Erasmus Generation. I did my best to adapt, and rented a room in a shared flat that seemed like the ideal type of a Euro-commune. Some of the national stereotypes I had were confirmed, some new ones were created and yet others were discarded.

Simen Ekern is a journalist and author. For the past few years, he has lived in Brussels and Rome, writing about European politics and culture. Ekern has a degree in the history of ideas and has for several years been regarded as one of Norway's foremost experts on Italy. Photo: Agnete Brun/Cappelen Damm

Simen Ekern is a journalist and author. For the past few years, he has lived in Brussels and Rome, writing about European politics and culture. Ekern has a degree in the history of ideas and has for several years been regarded as one of Norway's foremost experts on Italy. Photo: Agnete Brun/Cappelen Damm

The Erasmus programme did not erase national differences, but our everyday lives were very much a European experience. When I returned to Brussels to work as a journalist, ten years after the months I spent there as an Erasmus student, the idea of being a European had become both far more topical and far more controversial. While many people were cautiously positive about the idea of creating an Erasmus Generation when I first came to Brussels, the phrase used when I returned was a lost generation– a generation that more than anything else was characterised by a youth unemployment rate that had passed the 50 percent mark in many countries.

The Erasmus Impact Study, which was published last autumn, opens with a paragraph about the crisis in Europe. It states that, in the wake of economic crises and 'a challenging employment context', Europe needs to create jobs and prosperity. Erasmus is described as a golden opportunity to create jobs and ensure that people are qualified for the jobs that are needed. When the researchers behind the survey ask the participants themselves, however, it's interesting to see that 'job' does not top the list of reasons why people choose to participate in an Erasmus programme. Young people cite the same main reasons that have topped the list since the very beginning: an opportunity to live abroad for a while, an opportunity to learn a new language, and an opportunity to meet new people.

The Italian Umberto Eco has claimed that the Erasmus programme has led to a new sexual revolution in Europe: young people meet – and have children with – fellow students from other countries. The Erasmus Impact Study confirms Eco's point. As a German newspaper put it the day after the study was published: 'Erasmus gives Europe opportunities, love and babies.' According to the European Commission, one million children have been born as a direct result of the exchange programme. And if that isn't enough to completely change Europe, it would at least be enough to populate a new, small country in Europe

Now that love's sorted out, it's time to get a job. The Erasmus students seem to be doing quite well in that area as well. According to the study, they have halved their risk of long-term unemployment. Good career opportunities also increase: the number of students who have gone on to management positions is 20 percent higher among Erasmus students.

That sounds enticing. The question is how relevant these numbers are to Norway. At times, my impression has been the opposite. The number of students who want to study abroad is decreasing, not least because they do not want to lose out on the opportunity to make professional contacts at home while studying. As long as the unemployment rate is higher in other countries, it doesn't make sense to travel abroad – after all, it is Norway that has the good jobs with high pay.

Personally, I have no doubt that my year as an Erasmus student played a crucial part in forming me, on both the personal and professional level. At the same time, I acknowledge that my choice of career is hardly representative. If you plan to work as a journalist specialising in European politics and culture, and to publish a book on what it means to be a European today based on your own Erasmus experience, as I have just done, it will undoubtedly be relevant to spend a few years abroad as an Erasmus student. But this remains a somewhat narrow career path. I recognise that.

TheErasmus Impact Studydoes not give up that easily, however. It talks about something much broader: employability.A measuring tool called 'Memo©' has been used to test people's employability. It tests people's personality traits before and after departure – and compares them with people who do not go on an exchange. If the study is to be believed, the indications are that Erasmus has a positive effect on several of these personality traits. The greatest change after an Erasmus stay is found in the category 'curiosity' (+7%), and a category that concerns awareness of one's own strengths and weaknesses and being comfortable with them (+6%).

Seven per cent more curiosity. Six percent more self-awareness. Are these convincing enough arguments in favour of exchange stays?

Three years ago, when Erasmus celebrated its 25th anniversary, José Manuel Barroso, who was President of the European Commission at the time, emphasised the importance of giving 'young people the confidence and ability to work in other countries, where the right jobs might be available'. By 2020, approximately 35 percent of jobs in Europe will require higher education. This means that we must ensure that people are equipped to take on these jobs. That is also an important premise for Erasmus+, and, of course, it is an important, and indeed decisive, argument.

At the same time, it can be a good idea to distance ourselves from the notion that the primary motive for European integration has been to ensure mobile labour. We can't go around telling pupils, students and teachers that they should go to Europe to become perfect all-round pieces in a European labour puzzle, where people can be moved around as required. It has to run deeper than that.

I believe that it is important to highlight the more idealistic dimension of the Erasmus programmes, also in times of crisis, precisely to avoid the impression that education and work abroad are just about rationalising the labour market. There are other good arguments as well. One concerns social equality. In the past, experience from abroad was reserved for children of the rich and powerful in Europe, who could afford to go on a Grand Tour to get to know works of art, architectural masterpieces and like-minded children of the rich and powerful people in other countries. According to the researchers behind the Erasmus Impact Study, Erasmus, and thereby also Erasmus+, serves an important function in that it offers this opportunity to more people. I believe that is true.

Furthermore – and this is perhaps a more controversial argument in Norway – in the end, both Erasmus and Erasmus+ are about creating a common European identity. According to the Erasmus Impact Study, this is also how the scheme actually works. Around 85 percent of those who had participated in a study or work exchange programme 'feel more European' and have 'Europe-wide perspectives beyond the national horizon'.

Is this a good thing? If you ask the leaders of some of the political movements gaining ground in Europe right now, they'll say 'no'. When I interviewed Marine Le Pen in connection with my book on Europe today, she scorned the idea of a deeper European integration. 'There are no European values that are not founded upon the nation state,' Le Pen believes, and from this perspective, Erasmus students can be seen as potential traitors – sent by the European Commission to suck the last breath out of nation states.

If the Erasmus Impact Study is to be believed, the long-term effect of a stay abroad tallies well with Marine Le Pen's fears. Many of the students who were interviewed stressed that studying and living together not only increased their ability to understand people from other countries on the personal level, it also increased their awareness of the problems and dangers confronting the European project. Erasmus actually creates a European identity, not necessarily as a political-ideological project, but in a far more pragmatic way: Europe becomes a personal project, a personally experienced reality. There is a European quality that transcends national borders when you have friends, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or a job in a different country than your home country. You would have to be a pretty narrow-minded nationalist to see this as negative – although it is by no means a given that the nation state must disintegrate if pan-European collaboration is strengthened.

What is certain is that this is relevant to Norway as well, even though we are not a member of the EU. The direction Europe takes will be decisive for our thinking on the welfare state, the labour market and education policy. For Norwegians, exchange stays should therefore not just be about job opportunities, but also about the possibility to learn from – and influence – the battle for Europe's future that is currently being fought.

The article was originally written in Norwegian for SIU-magasinet, and has been translated into English by Allegro AS.