Are there lessons for Brexit Britain to learn from Switzerland’s threatened exclusion from the European Union’s collaborative programmes for mobility and research, such as Erasmus+ and the Horizon 2020, after a referendum vote to restrict immigration?


ERASMUS is arguably one of the European Union’s biggest success stories in demonstrating the value of the European project.

Best known for encouraging student mobility between universities in different countries, it celebrates its 30th birthday this year.

Launched on 17 June 1987 with just 11 countries, including the UK, taking part it has grown to having 33 countries in the full programme and other countries mainly in Eastern Europe and North Africa participating in some of its activities.Erasmus face single

Over five million people have benefitted from its student exchange programmes over the last 30 years, says the European Commission.

Difficult relationship for the Swiss

One country with a difficult recent relationship with the EU’s flagship programmes is Switzerland.

It originally joined Erasmus in 1992 but was suspended just as the EU was about to launch its expanded €14.7 billion Erasmus+ 2014-2020 programme, which integrated seven previous EU programmes in education, youth, training and sport.

The European Commission acted swiftly after a Swiss referendum on 9 February 2014 voted narrowly in favour of restricting free movement of people from the European Union after Croatia joined the EU.

Negotiations for Switzerland to join the new Erasmus+ programme were suspended and the country saw itself ‘kicked out’ of the EU’s incoming collaborative research Horizon 2020 research programme.

Fresh interpretation of referendum outcome

It has taken three years of intense discussions and a fresh interpretation of the referendum outcome before the European Commission readmitted Switzerland to Horizon 2020. The new interpretation stops short of quotas on immigration. Instead employers in sectors or areas of high unemployment are to offer vacancies to persons already residing or working in Switzerland before being allowed to recruit from abroad.

Julia Grünenfelder, European advisor for education at SwissCore’s office in Brussels, said Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ were at different stages when things broke down with the EU after the referendum result.

“For Horizon 2020, negotiations between the European Commission and Switzerland were actually finalised in 2014 but full association was not possible until the ratification of the protocol extending the free movement of persons to Croatia.

Swiss and EU stars“The Croatia protocol was ratified in December 2016, and Switzerland has fulfilled the necessary conditions for the full association to Horizon 2020 as of 2017.

“For Erasmus+, negotiations for association were still ongoing in 2014 when a majority of the Swiss people voted in favour of the anti-mass immigration initiative on 9 February 2014 and negotiations between the EU and Switzerland were suspended.”

Interim measures to continue EU cooperation 

The Swiss Federal Council adopted a series of interim measures to enable Switzerland to continue cooperation with the EU from 2014 to 2017, which allowed the Swiss to continue learning mobility of individuals with Switzerland paying for both outgoing and incoming mobility and providing funds for organisations to participate in Erasmus+ project consortia where they were allowed.

Grünenfelder said: “While Switzerland has been able to continue engaging in European cooperation, the trust, flexibility and support by institutions in programme countries has been indispensable.”

A spokesman for the European Commission welcomed the progress in EU and Swiss relations and confirmed that Switzerland was now fully associated with the Horizon 2020 programme, adding: “Negotiations on its participation in the Erasmus programme can now resume.”

What about Britain after Brexit?

So will the UK also be ‘kicked out’ of Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ when it implements the majority verdict in the British referendum and withdraws from membership of the European Union?

Not necessarily, says Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator and main staff expert on Brexit at the European University Association (EUA).

He says Switzerland has had a rather peculiar relationship with the EU – it is not a full member of the EU but did adhere to most of the rules and regulations, including the Schengen Agreement, which allows passport free movement across most of the EU bloc.

Thomas Jørgensen, EUA 'Brexit' expert

Thomas Jørgensen, EUA ‘Brexit’ expert

Britain opted out of Schengen and its arms-length membership of the European Union could play to its advantage in negotiating a way to stay within Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, or at least that is the hope of optimists like Jørgensen.

He said: “Switzerland had a number of different agreements with the EU, including Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ which are renewed on a rolling basis.

“When Switzerland’s referendum result meant it could not ensure free movement for Croatians, the deals on both Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ were frozen by EU at that particular moment.

Association agreements can differ

“Association agreements for non-EU countries can be different for different countries. For the UK, one could be looking at some kind of common agreement. We don’t know what it will look like, but there will be two years from when the UK starts the exit process (from the EU) to work something out.”

Jørgensen added that the UK government’s declared aim to leave the Single Market and take back control of immigration from the EU need not derail its participation in European collaborative projects like Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.

“Discussion about freedom of movement has been referred to the Single Market, where it legally belongs, and while framework programmes like Horizon 2020 could be part of this, there is no legal obligation to connect the two.”

Speaking to University World News (Brexit strategy ‘offers hope on Horizon 2020, Erasmus+ – 19 January 2017), Jørgensen went even further and said there were positive signals on UK participation in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ in some of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s recent statement and parliamentary answers on Brexit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May

This includes May’s 17 January speech, when she said: “We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives.”

Jørgensen claimed: “If you put the pieces together (of which she said) you don’t see big stumbling blocks, especially for Horizon 2020… In her Q&A session in parliament she said the UK would like to pay into specific programmes. That’s all you need for Horizon 2020.”

May more enigmatic on Erasmus+

He accepted May was more enigmatic on Erasmus+ and student and staff exchanges, but she did say she wanted the UK to be a magnet for talent and “if you are optimistic you could interpret that as the role that Erasmus+ plays in creating a pipeline, but that is pure speculation.”

Michael Gaebel, director of the EUA’s Higher Education Policy Unit, said much depends on the UK and they are talking closely with colleagues at the British rectors’ conference – Universities UK – to find a good solution.

He said: “The EUA is clear that it is in the interests of the European universities, and not just in the interests of UK universities, to keep the Britain in the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes.”

Many in the British higher education establishment, led by Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, warned at the time of the referendum that leaving the European Union would be a disaster, particularly to research funding and collaboration.

Brits don’t want to speculate

Universities UK’s International declined to comment on the suggestion from the EUA that Britain should be able to remain in both Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ after Brexit providing there was goodwill on both sides, with a spokeswoman saying: “I’m afraid we really don’t have any evidence to back up either direction and our policy is not to speculate.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, did however respond to

Theresa May’s 17 January speech, by saying: “We welcome the prime minister’s commitment to ensuring that the UK remains open to international talent. It was good also to hear her talking about the international strength of our university system and the importance of continuing to collaborate in cutting-edge research and innovation.

“Much of this success is due to our ability to attract talented students and staff from around the world and the world-class research we produce with international partners.

“There are currently nearly half a million international students at UK universities, with over 125,000 of them from EU countries. 16% of academic staff at UK universities are from EU countries, while 12% are from non-EU countries.

“Brexit negotiations must ensure that the UK is still open to EU and international students and that we can continue to access valuable and collaborative European research networks. It was encouraging to hear that the prime minister would like to see the UK continue to play a role in certain EU programmes.”

Dandridge called for reforms to the UK’s immigration system to ensure that the most talented international students, researchers and university staff can come to the UK and are welcomed, regardless of their nationality.

Also see

Brexit strategy ‘offers hope on Horizon 2020, Erasmus+ University World News, 19 January 2017

Cut red tape and raise funding in Erasmus+, says EUA University World News, January 2017