On Christmas Eve, the European Union and United Kingdom announced that they had concluded a deal sealing their future relationship after Brexit.
And as a special Christmas present to students, Boris Johnson quietly decided that Erasmus could be scrapped because it was “extremely expensive”.
This means that in future it will be considerably harder for British students to spend time at another European university. By the same token, most students across the EU will miss out on studying in the UK.
This is not what students in the EU want and this is also not what British students voted for in 2016. Young Brits overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.
Before surprisingly deciding to pull out, Boris Johnson himself stated that the UK’s participation in Erasmus was “not under threat.” Moreover, the UK may be leaving the EU, but it is not leaving Europe. British students have a moral right to connect with their home continent and European students should continue to feel welcomed in the UK.
Unfortunately, the EU has completely put the fate of Erasmus into the hands of Brexiteers. According to the European Commission, it was the British government’s decision to quit Erasmus. The European parliament similarly echoed this sentiment, stating that – alas – the UK decided not to take part in Erasmus.
The truth, however, is also that the EU decided not to push more against this idea.
After all, the EU benefits more from the scheme because it sends more students to British universities than the other way around.
Why the European Commission has not pushed back more against the idea of the British government is unclear.
The UK demanded time-limited and partial access to Erasmus, which would have been unprecedented.
But given that the UK stays part of higher education research through Horizon 2020, where it is typically a net beneficiary, the commission could have made the UK’s full participation in Erasmus a key demand.
Would Boris Johnson have risked a no deal Brexit only because of Erasmus? That is unlikely.
Irrespective of how we got here, it is not too late to save Erasmus from Brexit.
Having been part of the EU’s first-ever citizens’ initiative, I know first-hand that students are Europe’s dormant giant.
When in November 2012 Erasmus was at risk of running out of funds, this giant awoke and proved its ability to change Europe. Students were quickly joined by celebrities such as Spanish film maker Pedro Almodovar and Erasmus was quickly saved.
This lesson has taught me that Erasmus has great mobilisation potential. The question thus is not whether Erasmus can be saved from Brexit. The question is whether enough students realise that they hold the key to saving it.
There is one last chance to save Erasmus. The European parliament still has to give its assent to the deal. It could make this assent conditional on the UK’s full participation in Erasmus.
The parliament is one of the programme’s biggest cheerleaders. In fact, the question is gaining traction among MEPs, though so far only with a plea to the commission to “explore” ways to reintegrate Scotland and Wales into the scheme.
The EP should raise its ambition.
It would be perfectly within its gift to demand that Erasmus continues uninterrupted for all EU and British students. It would not be the first time that the EP requires changes to an agreement already negotiated by the Commission and Erasmus really should not be sacrificed on the altar of Brexit.
But the EP needs a little push in the right direction.
Students should write to MEPs that they want Erasmus with the UK to continue even after Brexit. Do it for all the students coming after you, like those before you have saved the programme in 2012.
And, also, do it for all British students that are dragged out of the EU against their will.
They have fallen victim to Boris Johnson’s final Brexit lie.
Now it is up to students across the EU not to let him get away with it.