ERASMUS has been one of success stories for the European Union and celebrates its 25th birthday this year. But it faces a cash crisis that could endanger the future of this innovative scheme to encourage student mobility. NIC MITCHELL finds out more.
A ‘Save Erasmus’ petition on Facebook has attracted thousands of signatures as campaigners launch a last minute bid to overturn €1.9billion billion slashed from key EU’s projects, including the flagship Erasmus student exchange programme.
But hopes of saving the scheme – which has given millions of students the opportunity to study for up to a year in another European country – were raised by an overwhelming vote in the European Parliament last week to restore the EU’s Lifelong Learning budget, which includes Erasmus.
The key date is 9 November, when representatives of the Council will end weeks of negotiations with delegates from the European Parliament in a ‘conciliation council’.
The outcome is still far from certain, as the Council of Ministers reflects the views of EU member governments who are facing difficult economic conditions at home.
Under EU rules the Parliament and Council have joint authority over the budget. And any deal will have to be ratified by both before the year-end.
Seven countries – Austria, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden – have so far refused to agree to European Commission proposals to increase expenditure in the 2013 budget by 6.8% to €138 billion.
Speaking in the European Parliament, Italian MEP Giovanni La Via, who holds key responsibilities for the budget, said: “The last thing companies, researchers, students and other beneficiaries of EU programmes need is insecurity about the Commission honouring its legal commitments.”
Karina Ufert, Chair of the European Students’ Union, said: “Over and over, we have had to listen to political leaders telling us how important education and student mobility is, especially in the light of the rising youth unemployment.
“WORDS MEAN NOTHING”
“Those words mean nothing if they do not actually put money on the table right now.”
Janusz Lewandowski, the EU Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget, responded to media reports of ‘impending doom for students across Europe’ with a strongly-worded statement, in which he said a dozen programmes have already used up between 95 and 100% of their yearly allocated funding three months before the end of the year.
“The programmes running out of funding are in the areas of research (space, IT and security research), growth and employment (European Social Fund, European Regional Development Fund), education (Erasmus), health, humanitarian aid and food aid.
INSUFFICIENT 2011 BUDGET
“It already appears that we will need several billion euros for those programmes,” said Mr Lewandowski, who put the blame squarely at the door of the budgetary authority (Council and Parliament), saying they had voted insufficient levels for the 2011 budget.
“We had no other option than roll over some €5 billion of bills onto the 2012 budget. Therefore, the 2012 budget was amputated of that amount of money right from the beginning.”
In the case of Erasmus, 70% of the students have received their payments, and many others should not be affected as many national agencies handling the grants still have financial resources.
ERASMUS IS GOOD
But, he admitted, some could find themselves short of funding; hence the need for an amending budget.
“Erasmus is good for Europe’s youth and for Europe’s recovery from the crisis; I cannot imagine our national governments refusing to invest in our youth”, said Mr Lewandowski.
The Commission is proposing an ‘additional corrective budget’ of €90 million to avert the prospect of Erasmus exchange students having their grants cut from next January.