Brussels tells exchange students, ‘stick to your plans’

It is not clear where the money will come from, or when, but the word from the European Commission to thousands of European students planning to study abroad in the near future is: don’t change your plans.

It is much-needed advice as the budget for the Erasmus student exchange programme is again under threat.

Talks between the European Union's (EU) two budget authorities – the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament – broke down on 13 November when MEPs refused to discuss the 2013 budget until and unless ministers approved a special supplementary budget of €9 billion (US$11.5 billion) for 2012 containing the Erasmus money, among other things.

“The situation is rather uncertain. It's also very unfair on Erasmus students, who have been promised places and grants,” said Dennis Abbott, the commission’s education spokesperson.

“We hope that member states will provide the necessary funding so that we can be sure to honour all our commitments in the 2012-13 academic year.”

At worst – in other words, if there is no agreement on the budget – Erasmus, like other EU programmes such as research, rural development and humanitarian aid, will have to go into a kind of standby mode, spending each month no more than a twelfth of the previous year’s budget.

“This will have huge knock-on effects for students next year,” Abbott said.

Is it all little more than sabre-rattling? Could be.

There is to be an EU summit meeting on 22-23 November at which heads of state of the 27 member countries will consider long-term financial planning for 2014-20.

Countries like the UK and Germany want spending frozen or strictly limited. The long-term plans are not formally linked to the current budget deadlock but inevitably there will be cross-referencing.

The summit meeting later this month will, however, provide an opportunity for the EU leaders to cut to the quick and order prompt approval of the special €9 billion budget for 2012 – if that is where the mood takes them.