Time running out for EU student exchange financing

Time is running out for an agreement on the European Union’s (EU) budget that would permit the Erasmus student exchange programme to continue without damaging cuts early next year.

But the hold-ups are to some extent procedural and a rescue could be on the way before year end.

Although there was yet more deadlock this week in negotiations between the joint EU financing authorities – the Council of Ministers, representing the 27 member states, and the European Parliament – the failure was not to do with the figures for once.

At issue was whether to discuss the amending ‘budget 6’ for 2012 simultaneously with the budget for 2013 – or not.

This might seem a ludicrously pedantic matter to the world at large, but of such fine distinctions is the machinery of EU government constructed.

In any case the European Commission, which drafts the budget (and implements it after agreement) will resubmit a new attempt with similar figures, which it points out are based on expenditure forecasts by the member states that haven't changed.

That’s not to say that straightforward agreement is now on the cards.

“This is not a situation where we can get a credit card to postpone the payments [to students]," said Dennis Abbott, the commission’s education spokesperson.

“If we don't pay, it means we will have to substantially cut Erasmus grants next year and many people will miss out on a vital opportunity to gain skills which could help them get a job,” he said.

The dispute is basically rooted in the reluctance of many EU member countries to accept an increase in the EU's 2013 budget of 6.8%, or €9 billion (US$11.7 billion), to €138 billion (US$179 billion) at a time when domestic spending is under considerable strain.

This has frustrated efforts to agree on a special ‘corrective’ budget of €90 million for Erasmus and other projects to avert the prospect of students having their grants cut from next January.

The European Students' Union (ESU), noting that cash for the first semester of 2013 has already been paid by Brussels to the national grant authorities, said it was “worried that the payments will come in too late and that these delays will cause a massive drop in Erasmus applications”.

Karina Ufert, chair of the ESU, said: “How can we expect students to take a decision about studying abroad when there is no clarity on the grants they will receive? EU member states have made a commitment to free up money to increase student mobility; now it is time they act like it.”