Talks under way to rescue Erasmus student exchange programme

Last-minute efforts are under way to rescue the European Union’s Erasmus student exchange programme, which has been threatened – along with other EU activities – by budget cuts ordered by the EU Council of Ministers.

The key date is 9 November, when representatives of the council will conclude 21 days of negotiations with delegates from the European parliament in a ‘conciliation council’ to see if funding can be restored.

Supporters of Erasmus have been heartened by an overwhelming vote in the parliament this week to reverse the cuts made by ministers in July.

MEPs voted by 492 to 123 to put back the €1.9 billion (US$2.5 billion) slashed from a number of key projects including Erasmus Mundus, Lifelong Learning and the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development.

But while the MEPs mainly reflect public sentiment, the Council of Ministers expresses the attitudes of EU member governments, most of which are facing difficult economic conditions at home, with many countries in recession.

Under EU rules the parliament and council have joint authority over the budget.

Seven countries – Austria, Britain, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden – have refused to agree to European Commission proposals to increase expenditure in the 2013 budget by 6.8% or €9 billion, to €138 billion.

Finland, France and Germany have called for a €5 billion cut in spending next year.

Following the budget cuts ordered by the council in the summer, the Brussels-based commission has proposed an ‘additional corrective budget’ of €90 million to avert the prospect of students having their grants cut from next January.

This will now be subsumed into the conciliation negotiations next month. Any deal reached then will have to be ratified by the parliament and the council before year-end, although this should be a formality.

Speaking in the European parliament this week, Italian MEP Giovanni La Via, who holds key responsibilities for the budget, said: “The last thing companies, researchers, students and other beneficiaries of EU programmes need is insecurity about the commission honouring its legal commitments.”

Karina Ufert, chair of the European Students' Union, said: “Over and over we have had to listen to political leaders who told us how important education and student mobility is, especially in the light of the rising youth unemployment.

“Those words mean nothing if they do not actually put money on the table right now.”

Erasmus enables students in higher education to spend between three and 12 months in another European country – either for studies or for a placement in a company or other organisation.

The opportunity is open to students from the 27 EU countries and six other European states.

Erasmus is a part of the EU's Lifelong Learning programme, which includes the Leonardo da Vinci programme, the Comenius programme and the Grundtvig programme. Brussels had presented a budget of €132.7 billion for 2012 but the final agreed figure was €129.1 billion.

The commission has already transferred some €980 million to national agencies in the participating countries in respect of grants for the current year but this is insufficient to cover all the commitments made in advance, hence this month’s additional corrective budget.