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The Impact of Brexit on the Erasmus Generation

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Reading time: 8 minutes
Speech by Matthew Clemo, 30th November 2016
picture of a conference

Ladies and gentlemen, guests of the Parliament,

My name is Matthew Clemo, I’m the Vice-President of the Erasmus Student Network, and I am British. For those that don’t know, ESN is Europe’s largest student network, with over 500 local organisations in 39 countries. When university students go on exchange, we try to be the ones to welcome them in their new environment, help integrate them into the new culture and organise various activities and trips, amongst many other things.

It’s fair to say that 2016 has been a particularly turbulent year, what with the various terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis, Brexit and so on. We are living in a union of crisis. This turbulence and fear of unity, open borders and basic trust, are not only bound to us Europeans. With many of the issues that global politics is facing, the effects could mostly prove to be temporary, something that can be fixed over time. With Brexit, however, the potential damage may prove to span many generations to come.

When the Brexit vote took place, I unfortunately couldn’t be in the UK, I had to delegate my vote via proxy to my father. Looking back, it’s rather ironic because I was at a training event in Hungary as one of 10 trainers delivering workshops to 60 young Europeans about the topic of Intercultural Dialogue. The training event was even partly funded by the Council of Europe.

Now, very few people outside of the UK actually thought Brexit was a possibility, so when the results came in, it took the world by shock. I’m sure many of you in this room remember where you were when you found out the results. People kept coming up to me, asking if I was okay, if I still wanted to deliver my workshops. Of course I did! The fact that Brexit happened only amplifies the importance of spreading the message of intercultural dialogue.

In the months since, everyone has been asking the same question: “What’s happening with Brexit?”, “What does this mean for Erasmus students?”. It’s almost turning into my own internal game, to see how long it will take at different events, before someone asks me about Brexit, once they find out I’m British. I was at an event in Rome, in September, speaking in a panel about the EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans, so nothing related to Brexit. Nevertheless, the simple fact of having two Brits in the panel was enough for the audience to almost turn the debate into a Brexit talk. It’s a truly surreal phenomenon.

So, how is Brexit, actually going to impact the Erasmus+ programme? Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone truly knows yet. We’re five months on from the vote, and the only concrete detail that we have about Brexit is that Theresa May wants to trigger Article 50 by the end of March.

Conference on The Impact of Brexit on Erasmus+ and the Erasmus Generation European Parliament
Conference on The Impact of Brexit on Erasmus+ and the Erasmus Generation, European Parliament, 30th November 2016

Immediately after the vote, ESN UK published a reaction to the referendum results. In this statement, they outlined what this could mean for students. Over the last three years, the UK has received over 200,000 exchange students. For the current Erasmus+ students, and most likely the next batch of Erasmus+ students, there won’t be any change to the way in which the programme operates or affects them. In fact, the only concrete facts we do know about Brexit, is that it will last up to 2 years. After this period, the UK will automatically exit the EU with whatever deal was managed to be negotiated up to that point. Therefore, only students hoping to undergo an Erasmus+ exchange to or from the UK beyond 2018 would be the first students to experience any new regulations.

As to what comes next, it’s anyone’s guess. The UK is in quite a unique situation because only one member state has ever ‘technically’ left the EU before; Greenland, when they split from the European Economic Community in the 1980s. We often read about how the ideal situation would be to model our exit on Norway’s situation, as they have a lot of access to EU benefits, but then they were never a part of the EU, so their deals were struck in a very different window of opportunity. Maybe we could look closer to Switzerland, but again they were also never in the EU. What happens to the pre-existing bilateral agreements that have been set up between the UK and other EU countries? It looks like the universities would be free to keep these, as they already have similar agreements with universities outside of the EU, there’s just not the same level of funding there. Perhaps we would end up becoming a partner country of the Erasmus+ programme, giving us access to some of the funding again, but this could be a severe downgrade in terms of funding and access.

A few weeks ago, a group of 20 former, current and hopeful Erasmus students travelled to Brussels to present a petition to save the Erasmus+ exchange programme in the UK. Work is being done to try and safeguard opportunities for young Europeans to live, study and work abroad. When we look at the referendum voting results, the highest demographic voting to remain was the 18-24 year olds, with 73 percent! The statistics only drop below 50 percent once you reach the over 45s. The fact is that young people in the UK feel like our futures are being taken away from us because of this vote, and there are a lot of people that to this day cannot accept what’s happened and are still trying to fight to keep what we believe should be our right.

The Telegraph recently wrote an article on what would brexit mean for universities and EU students. They stated that “In 2012-2013, 5.5 per cent of students studying in the UK were from EU countries, generating £3.7 billion for the UK economy and generating 34,000 jobs in local communities, according to Universities UK”. However, aside from the economical impact, perhaps the most important impact will be on universities and student development. This is something that cannot be quantified but will be just as damaging. Having worked with and for international students through ESN for the past 4 years, I’ve seen first-hand the intangible benefits on this generation’s cultural awareness, their open-mindedness and their innovation to society.

Now, this young demographic is the definition of an Erasmus Generation, a generation that, for the first time, has Europe almost literally at their fingertips. Never before has it been so easy to travel the world with a few clicks of a mouse button and €50 in your bank account. Thirty years ago, it would have been a completely farfetched notion for my parents to believe that both of their children would one day be living in two different European capitals. My sister moved to Paris at the age of 19 with less than a basic knowledge of the French language, but she’s now been living and working there for almost 9 years, is fully fluent and has immersed herself into the French culture.

Myself, on the other hand, I now live and volunteer full time in Brussels, for ESN. I actually never went on Erasmus, I was one of those typical Brits that wrongly assumed that since I didn’t speak another language, I should only look at exchanges in English-speaking countries. I ended up spending a year at Oklahoma State University and it was the best decision of my life. When I returned to the University of Hertfordshire, I absolutely had to get involved and help other international students. That’s where ESN entered my life.

Conference on The Impact of Brexit on Erasmus+ and the Erasmus Generation, European Parliament
Conference on The Impact of Brexit on Erasmus+ and the Erasmus Generation, European Parliament, 30th November 2016

My first experience with ESN on an international level was when I attended the Annual General Meeting in Maribor, Slovenia. It was a gathering of over 600 volunteers from 34 European countries. When I arrived, I don’t think I quite knew what to expect, but to see everyone speaking such fluent English, despite there only being a handful of native speakers, it blew my mind. The elegance of their speech and the way in which they were conveying their messages and ideas was incredible. I even thought at the time how their command of the English language was even better than some of the native speakers I knew back in the UK!

Every day, ESNers all over Europe are working to engage international students in their communities, to show them new cultures, a new way of life and a new way of thinking. However, our generation is on the verge of being taken back to the dark ages of closed borders and intolerance towards others. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the sudden rise of open xenophobia on the streets of the UK following the vote. I felt ashamed to see the people in the country that I loved and grew up in act out against the fundamental principles I had been brought up on. I went back home in September for some conferences and the whole time I was there, I found myself questioning everything around me, including my sense of belonging to the place I call home.

The Erasmus generation is a shining beacon of hope. The Erasmus generation will one day become the European leaders that we all look up to for guidance back into a more open and tolerant Europe. For now though, we have a tough road ahead. Perhaps this step back is exactly what we need in order to move forward in a more positive way. I just hope that our step back doesn’t inadvertently influence other countries to follow suit. There are plenty of worries about a possible impending Frexit, or Grexit, a Departugal, Czechout, or even an Italeave.

I want to end with a call for politicians to heed the warning of Brexit. This is not simply a British problem. People all over Europe are scared and angry at the way things are being run. The attempts so far at reassuring the people simply haven’t been enough to quell the momentum of far-right views spreading. I would urge you to work with the young people that have benefited from this open union more than any other generation and that are willing to stand up and work to protect what we believe to be our fundamental values and rights.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to me today.

Matthew Clemo
Conference on The Impact of Brexit on Erasmus+ and the Erasmus Generation
European Parliament, 30th November 2016