In the aftermath of the referendum in June last year, I and many other Oxford languages students about to embark on our years abroad braced ourselves in anticipation of the many jokes we would soon become the butt of across Europe.
I spent the year in Berlin. The Germans aren’t known for their sense of humour, but the majority I met seemed to find the referendum result funny. As soon as they worked out I was English (which my attempt at a genuine German accent failed to disguise) a grin would appear. Then would come the dreaded question: “Was denkst du über Brexit?” (“How do you feel about Brexit?”) One of the things you notice after living in Germany for a while is that the national pastime of poking fun at timid foreigners can occasionally veer more on the side of sadism; this was the first time I’d come into personal contact with some authentic German schadenfreude. I wasn’t feeling too positive about Brexit, I would say.
A year later, there’s even more reason to worry. The government’s determination to push through a hard Brexit is threatening to do much more than simply wound the pride of UK international students. Indispensable funding programmes and institutions are now being jettisoned. Continued membership of the customs union, and of organisations like Euratom and Europol, is depicted as a kind of capitulation to the Remain camp, rather than what it is – the only way to shelter the UK from the worst of the post-Brexit storm.
Languages students like me have one issue particularly close to our hearts. What will happen to the Erasmus scheme? If the government is willing to exit the single market, leave numerous EU-financed organisations, and end its participation in essential funding agreements which help make our universities and research institutions world-class, something as far down the list of negotiators’ priorities as Erasmus could easily be lost. And it’s hard to see how the Erasmus programme could possibly continue without freedom of movement, which the government is keen to put an end to. This is not just idle speculation; it’s having an effect now. Languages students starting their degrees this year face the prospect of ending their second year of study without knowing how they’ll spend their third.
The real positives of the scheme can’t be measured in an accountant’s ledger.
Erasmus has always been attractive to students. In its first 25 years (to 2012), over three million people took part. And recently its popularity has soared, with the number of participants increasing by 115 percent since 2007. Part of its popularity lies in the fact that it provides significant financial support – up to 550 euros a month for some. Without this, the prospect of a year abroad becomes less feasible for poorer students, only remaining a viable option for those with the money to pay the numerous costs involved. If Erasmus comes to an end in the UK, social mobility, which Theresa May has claimed as one of her guiding principles, will suffer. “I cannot overstate the freedom that the Erasmus programme helped me to have”, one Oxford student told me. “It helped me to live independently and take full advantage of the opportunities available, without financial worries.”
There are also fears about the effect that leaving the programme would have on the number of applicants to languages degrees, and what this would do to the UK’s already faltering reputation as an outward-looking country. According to YouGov, 62 percent of university language students said that the prospect of an international exchange influenced their decision to study a language. Without the incentive of the Erasmus scheme and the support it provides, it’s likely that fewer people will apply to languages courses, perhaps in favour of more immediately financially rewarding courses.
So what efforts are being made to ensure that UK students can continue to benefit from the Erasmus programme after Brexit? I spoke to Erasmus´ UK National Agency, which told me that they were in “frequent contact with the UK Government”, and that they “strongly support continued full membership of the programme”. While they “cannot speculate on any possible future scenarios following the UK’s exit from the EU”, they did cite the Prime Minister’s announcement that “there may be some specific European programmes in which we might want to participate”.
But looming over all of this is the as yet undecided fate of freedom of movement. A report written last year by the agency makes clear that it is “an underlying principle for full participation in Erasmus, and […] any restriction on freedom of movement […] can lead to a disqualification from national participation”. Another report, containing the government’s response, is due before the end of October. With the negotiators’ current approach, it is hard to be all that optimistic about the scheme’s future. A spokesperson for Oxford University told me that the scheme would be “difficult to replicate” if abolished after Brexit, though efforts were being made to petition the government. The University stressed that it would “wish to continue participating in Erasmus […] which provides not only funding, but also a streamlined process for organising exchanges and a feeling of being part of something bigger for our students”.
The real vulnerability of the Erasmus scheme in Brexit negotiations lies in the fact that, for the most part, it benefits the UK in ways that are not purely economic. In the minds of what appear to be the trade-obsessed UK negotiators, this makes the scheme less worth fighting for. The real positives of the scheme can’t be measured in an accountant’s ledger. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real, or that they matter less. Consider how many lasting relationships have started as a result of Erasmus, how many lifelong friendships have been formed on years abroad, or how many people’s lives have been changed and enriched by the realisation that they may in fact belong somewhere else.
Is it worth giving up so much, just to take back control?
Countless people have found their homes elsewhere in Europe as a result of the programme; they’ve set up their lives there, found jobs, had families – and the same is true of other European students who spent their years abroad in the UK. This is a wonderful thing for so many reasons, not least because it encourages closer ties between the various cultures of Europe. The ‘Erasmus generation’, as the political scientist Stefan Wolff calls it, is likely to grow up with a healthy suspicion of the prejudices and misconceptions which helped take the UK out of the EU. They are instead informed by the positive values which the programme fosters: open-mindedness, curiosity and respect.
My time in Germany taught me, among other things, to be more cautious about accepting the stereotypes of other countries that we grow up half-believing. I learnt to try as best I can to view another culture without the distorting effect of preconceptions and generalisations, to understand how and why it differs from ours, and to appreciate how it is the same. Whatever the drawbacks of increasing globalisation, there is no doubt that schemes like these contribute generally to the gradual softening of prejudice, the lessening of xenophobia, and a deepening of understanding of other cultures. Is it worth giving up so much, just to take back control?