Do you remember this well-known French film which staged the cultural dialogue and the festive atmosphere associated with the Erasmus student exchange program? Twelve years ago, “L’Auberge espagnole” popularized what millions of young students in various countries of Europe (and even beyond the borders of the EU) have known now for over 25 years. Although the famous European program encourages student and professional mobility within the Union, a genuine cultural diversity and the development of a sense of European citizenship, it is now necessary to go further so that the Europe of tomorrow is not just for the few.
27 years ago, I opened my eyes to the world for the first time in a small hospital in Europe’s capital city. That same year, the now renowned European exchange program was born. Coincidence or predestination? One sure thing is that I have been privileged. Since my father worked for the European Commission, I had the great opportunity to grow up in the very culturally and linguistically rich environment of the European schools. As a young boy, I already felt proud that the Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak was among the founding fathers of the Union. Our small country was at the heart of such a great adventure: the European integration project. May 9 was a special day for me – it was a holiday! – and I even learned the ‘Ode to Joy’ long before I smoked my first cigarette. As a teenager I got drunk among Spaniards, Irishmen and Greeks. A subtle mix of calimocho, whisky and raki that constituted the basis of a memorable series of European hangovers…
Yet my Erasmus struck me particularly. Ljubljana, its charm, its intertwined architectural styles alternating between Art Nouveau and Baroque, its sumptuous bridge made by the famous architect Jože Plečnik which harmoniously invites the Ljubljanica river to flow underneath it, all of it amazed me. The Slovenian capital at the crossroads of Latin, Germanic and Slavic cultures invited me into a world and a reality that were previously unknown to me and yet felt so close. I understood then that Europe had been cut, broken, fractured and that it called to meet again. I understood better why the collective memory in the East was not the same as in the West, and why it tirelessly brought the past back into the present. I realized that time and history had destroyed bridges we now needed to rebuild.
Besides the wonder of the cultural landscape, I met people from the former Yugoslavia and from all over Europe, but also from Turkey, the USA, China, the list goes on. I lived among locals for a few months and then with ten Slovenian and Erasmus students from many different nationalities. It was truly our own “Auberge espagnole”, and we were proud of it.
During my stay, I managed to learn the basics of Slovenian, I followed classes in a different education system, I traveled all around the country as well as its neighbours: Croatia, Italy, and even as far as Hungary. I took the time after my Erasmus to explore the beautiful cities of Mostar, Sarajevo and Belgrade. The painful past of such sumptuous places filled these travels with a poignant emotion.
What one keeps from such an experience is not so much the university and its courses –even though I met some professors that opened my eyes to many things. It is all the rest that gravitates and revolves around it: people, debates, cuisines, travels, crazy parties or nice quiet musical improvisation in front of the river, each constituted an indispensable thread for a colourful tapestry.
I belong to that ‘Erasmus generation’: one that considers it normal to travel freely and groans whenever it has to queue to show its passport, for whom it is natural to have euros in its pocket and not having to calculate exchange rates at each train or plane descent, one that can express itself in several languages, one that, sometimes, finds love beyond its national and linguistic borders.
Imagine my stupefaction when I learned in 2012 that the EU was deliberating on the sacrifice of Erasmus on the altar of fiscal austerity. The message was clear: why bother spending EU money in a crisis situation for students who spend their time partying? But are there really other projects that can better serve cohesion and European integration than youth mobility and the development of a common identity?
Fortunately, not only has this eventuality been ruled out but an improved version was introduced in January 2014. Erasmus gained a “+”. With additional educational programs and life-long training possibilities, Erasmus+ is now a comprehensive initiative with a budget of 14.7 billion (40% more than the previous budget), which will allow more than 4 million Europeans to live this unique experience abroad until 2020.
By bringing the students of Europe together, there is no doubt to me that it is the best policy instrument to realize ‘an ever closer union’. Still, if all this is hopeful, the dynamics are still insufficient. The scholarship amounts remain small and do not allow the most disadvantaged to live without additional personal resources. In total, the budget for Erasmus+ is only 4.2 euro per capita per year on education. In the current ‘hope in crisis’ context that affects young and old people alike it is essential to extend this approach to all citizens, regardless of their age, level of education, or qualifications. Europe must not play a coordinating role, it must be at the forefront of an initiative in favor of an EU-wide common policy in education.
Europe has done a lot and continues to achieve what no other union of peoples and cultures has hitherto accomplished. Yet our elites belong to a generation that grew up in a crystal palace while our young people today form a new and growing ‘precariat’. The future of Europe will have to be reinvented from the base, through the solidarity of the shaken and the undermined. It is a Europe of mobility, education and culture, one that is genuinely ‘bottom-up’ that can bring salute. Erasmus generation, your voice matters, raise it!