Tens of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants fleeing civil war and poverty from the European Union’s southern and eastern neighbours dominated the headlines over the summer.

And while European leaders struggled to find an acceptable policy for member states to cope with the tide of people heading north, a public consultation was already underway about a new ‘neighbourhood policy’ for the European Commission.

Through its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the European Union works with nations in North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and non-EU countries in Eastern Europe to encourage the closest possible political association and greater economic integration.

Twelve countries are currently fully participating partners in the ENP: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Moldavia, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Ukraine. Algeria is currently negotiating an ENP action plan.

Belarus, Libya and Syria remain outside most of the ENP structures and Russia has had a special status with the EU-Russia Common Spaces instead of ENP participation

Among those responding to the public consultation was the European University Association (EUA), the body that represents 850 individual institutions and national rectors’ conferences in 47 countries.

Fostering dialogue and mutual understanding

Michael Gaebel

Michael Gaebel, EUA director of higher education policy

Their director of higher education policy, and author of the EUA response, Michael Gaebel, said: “We cooperate with universities and organisations in the eastern and southern neighbourhood to foster dialogue, mutual understanding and cooperation.

“It is crucial that we exchange knowledge and expertise, build capacities and encourage cooperation with all parts of the world, including of course our immediate neighbours.”

Remove administrative obstacles

But his report says there are administrative obstacles to mobility that should be eliminated by simplifying, harmonising and liberalising visa procedures and instituting fast-track options for short-term mobility, such as conference participation.

“In this light, rules and regulations that impede the reciprocity of partnerships and exchanges, such as the 10% limit imposed on Erasmus+ mobility from the EU to neighbourhood countries, should be reconsidered.”

Higher Education narrows the gap

When I interviewed Michael for University World News, he told me: “While the geographical distance is small, for many European citizens the countries of the neighbourhood region appear to be far away.

“Higher education cooperation can contribute to narrowing this gap, enhance mutual understanding on the level of societies and stimulate exchange and collaboration in other areas.”

Many eastern neighbours are already active participants in the Bologna Process and a number of institutions and countries in the southern Mediterranean have adopted some Bologna features, such as the three-cycle system and European Credit Transfer System.

Political and social benefits

But the Neighbourhood policy has goals beyond just the academic.

'Collaboration and exchanges brings considerable benefits'

‘Collaboration and exchanges brings considerable benefits’

According to the EUA: “International collaboration and exchange in higher education renders considerable political and social benefits.

“Mobility and exchanges foster the professional development of individuals and human resource development in general, with immense benefits for the EU and neighbourhood countries, particularly in view of current demographic and migration patterns.

“Institutional capacity building in partner countries helps to prevent brain-drain by providing opportunities for young talent to receive a better education and career opportunities at home.”

EU financial support

The EU neighbourhood region already receives greater financial support for international cooperation and mobility than all other global region.

This can be seen as a reaction to political crises in parts of the region, as well as to a growth in political and religious extremism and violence which affects countries in the neighbourhood region and the EU, albeit to very different degrees and in different ways.

“To address these challenges, governments in the EU and the neighbouring countries have for the most part committed to providing better education and career opportunities for ever more citizens, to improving their education sectors and, particularly in the case of higher education and research, to internationalising them”, says the EUA’s response to the European Commission consultation.

Stimulate outgoing mobility

The EUA urges the Commission to strengthen higher education and research cooperation and to stimulate and support outgoing mobility to institutions in neighbourhood countries by supporting universities and providing incentives for developing and or enhancing mobility towards the ENP partners.

To create a better balance between incoming and outgoing mobility, the EUA wants greater focus on short study stays, placements for practical experience and summer schools for EU students and staff.

It also wants to extend cooperation to the ‘neighbours of neighbours’ pointing out that some of these neighbours play an important political and economic role in the region and excluding them from dialogue and cooperation initiatives could limit the effectiveness of actions, and even lead to tensions.

The report concludes by saying: “The ongoing economic crises in Europe as well as tension and turmoil within and between a number of neighbourhood countries, while adding to the challenges, also makes this an even more pressing issue.

“We strongly believe that there is an opportunity now to promote even more active higher education and research cooperation, that will lead in future to long-term benefits in terms of democratisation, system improvement and social and economic development.

“If we do not start to act now, the consequences could be damaging and long-lasting.”

Commission response

Nathalie Vandystadt, Commission spokesperson for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said: “While we cannot at this point comment on the outcome of the consultation or the submissions made so far, we value all the contributions to the debate about the future of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

European Commission spokeswoman Nathalie Vandystadt.

European Commission spokeswoman Nathalie Vandystadt.

“Europe has vital interest in building a strong relationship with its neighbours and cooperation in education and training plays an important role in this; helping to build a common space of stability and prosperity, fostering social and economic development and accomplishing democratic transition in partner countries.

“Today, neighbouring countries already have a priority status among partner countries in the Erasmus+ programme. They can participate in some Erasmus+ actions and receive the highest corresponding budget for cooperation in the field of education and training.”

* This blog is a slightly abridged version of a feature article I wrote for University World News headlined ‘Remove obstacles to cooperation with EU neighbours – EUA, published August 28, 2015.

* For more information about the European neighbourhood policy, see here

Main photo: European Neighbourhood countries in green