Remove obstacles to cooperation with EU neighbours – EUA

Obstacles to exchanges between universities in the European Union and their southern and eastern neighbours “should be eliminated” by simplifying and harmonising visa procedures in order to support and encourage academic exchange and cooperation.

So says the European University Association, or EUA, in its response to the European Commission’s public consultation on ‘Towards a new European Neighbourhood Policy’.

The issue of how the European Union should work with its near neighbours is rising up the agenda, especially for the EUA, which represents 850 individual institutions and national rectors’ conferences in 47 countries.

Michael Gaebel, director of the higher education policy unit at the EUA, told University World News: “We cooperate with universities and organisations in the eastern and southern neighbourhood to foster dialogue, mutual understanding and cooperation.

“It is crucial that we exchange knowledge and expertise, build capacities and encourage cooperation with all parts of the world, including of course our immediate neighbours.”

Administrative obstacles to mobility

“But there are administrative obstacles to mobility that should be eliminated by simplifying, harmonising and liberalising visa procedures and instituting fast-track options for short-term mobility, such as conference participation.

“In this light, rules and regulations that impede the reciprocity of partnerships and exchanges, such as the 10% limit imposed on Erasmus+ mobility from the EU to neighbourhood countries, should be reconsidered.”

Through its European Neighbourhood Policy, the European Union works with its neighbours in North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and non-EU countries in Eastern Europe to encourage the closest possible political association and greater economic integration.

There are 12 countries currently participating fully as partners in the European Neighbourhood Policy, or ENP: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Moldavia, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Ukraine. Algeria is currently negotiating an ENP action plan.

Belarus, Libya and Syria remain outside most of the structures of the European Neighbourhood Policy, according to the European Union’s diplomatic service. Russia has had a special status with the EU-Russia Common Spaces instead of ‘neighbourhood’ participation.

Common interests and values

The goal is to share common interests and values – democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and social cohesion – and the neighbourhood policy is seen as a key part of the European Union's foreign policy.

Gaebel told University World News: “While the geographical distance is small, for many European citizens the countries of the neighbourhood region appear to be far away.

“Higher education cooperation can contribute to narrowing this gap, enhance mutual understanding at the level of societies and stimulate exchange and collaboration in other areas.”

Benefits to the EU and neighbours

In its response to the public consultation, the EUA points out that countries of the eastern neighbourhood region actively participate in the Bologna process, while a number of institutions and countries in the southern Mediterranean have adopted some Bologna features, such as the three-cycle system and the European Credit Transfer System.

“Beyond its primary importance for academia and research, international collaboration and exchange in higher education renders considerable political and social benefits.

“Mobility and exchanges foster the professional development of individuals and human resource development in general, with immense benefits for the EU and neighbourhood countries, particularly in view of current demographic and migration patterns.”

Also: “Institutional capacity building in partner countries helps to prevent brain-drain by providing opportunities for young talent to receive a better education and career opportunities at home.”

EU political commitment

The European Union neighbourhood region receives greater financial support for international cooperation and mobility than all other global regions – clearly underlining the EU’s political commitment, says the EUA.

In recent years this can be seen as a reaction to political crises in parts of the neighbourhood region, as well as to a growth in political and religious extremism and violence which affects countries in the neighbourhood and the EU, albeit to very different degrees and in different ways.

“To address these challenges, governments in the EU and the neighbouring countries have for the most part committed to providing better education and career opportunities for ever more citizens, to improve their education sectors and, particularly in the case of higher education and research, to internationalise them,” says the EUA’s response.

In welcoming the European Commission’s consultation on the future of the neighbourhood policy and its focus on civil society, the EUA urges the commission to strengthen higher education and research cooperation “as a crucial element of the civil society dialogue between Europe and its neighbours”.

Among its proposals, it calls on the EU to stimulate and support measures for promoting outgoing mobility to institutions in neighbourhood countries by supporting universities and providing incentives for developing and-or enhancing mobility towards the ENP partners.

To create a better balance between incoming and outgoing mobility, the EUA wants greater focus on short study stays, placements for practical experience and summer schools for EU students and staff.

‘Neighbours of neighbours’

The EUA also suggests extending cooperation to the ‘neighbours of neighbours’.

“Some neighbours of European Neighbourhood Policy countries play an important political and economic role. Excluding them from dialogue and cooperation initiatives could limit the effectiveness of actions, and even lead to tensions.

“At the same time, the EU already provides under other schemes funding for collaboration between the EU and countries that would be ‘neighbours of neighbours’.

"The aim should be to foster inclusiveness and flexibility, by allowing ‘neighbours of neighbours’ to participate in neighbourhood measures under certain conditions, both at their own cost and with support from other dedicated EU funding instruments,” says the EUA.

Challenges and opportunities

The report concludes by saying: “The ongoing economic crises in Europe as well as tension and turmoil within and between a number of neighbourhood countries, while adding to the challenges, also makes this an even more pressing issue.

“We strongly believe that there is an opportunity now to promote even more active higher education and research cooperation, that will lead in future to long-term benefits in terms of democratisation, system improvement and social and economic development.

“If we do not start to act now, the consequences could be damaging and long-lasting.”

The Commission is expected to set out its proposal for the future direction of the European Neighbourhood Policy in the autumn.

Nathalie Vandystadt, Commission spokesperson for education, culture, youth and sport, said: “While we cannot at this point comment on the outcome of the consultation or the submissions made so far, we value all the contributions to the debate about the future of the European Neighbourhood Policy.

“Europe has vital interest in building a strong relationship with its neighbours; and cooperation in education and training plays an important role in this; helping to build a common space of stability and prosperity, fostering social and economic development and accomplishing democratic transition in partner countries.

“Today, neighbouring countries already have a priority status among partner countries in the Erasmus+ programme. They can participate in some Erasmus+ actions and receive the highest corresponding budget for cooperation in the field of education and training.”

* For more information about the European Neighbourhood Policy, click here and here.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, and on his website.