As it seems we start already now to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Erasmus (adopted June 1987) we take this opportunity to talk about how Franck Biancheri and the AEGEE students launched the ERASMUS programme in 1987(1). A text written by David Carayol, vice-President, coordinator of the Newropeans electoral committee for France and head of list in South-West of France for 2009 EP elections.
The Children of ERASMUS (18.01.2007) – The ERASMUS programme celebrates 20 years of existence in 2007. In the meantime it is the most symbolic programme of European Construction and is well known and famous all over Europe. If the interest of this programme appears obvious today, ERASMUS at one point was most likely never to exist…
Below is a summary of the main dates and events which led to the adoption of the ERASMUS programme:
January 1985: How everything started
About fifteen students from the student boards of 5 Parisian “grandes écoles” were busy organising the first European Students general meeting (Etats Généraux des Etudiants Européens : EGEE 1). Franck Biancheri represented the Sciences Po Paris and was chairman of this small group. The main issue at that time was to be able to get connected to the European Students! If this sounds astonishing today, at that time contacting the 10 embassies of the concerned European countries was an indispensable prerequisite to any European action…
April 1985: The first Etats Généraux des Etudiants Européens
EGEE 1 took place during one week and aroused 350 European students to join in conferences organised in the 5 “grandes écoles” and recognised by the main institutions of the republic. Thanks to the sponsors obtained at the highest level of the state, whether left or right of the political spectrum(2). The event was a success, as much for the logistic as for the media coverage. Imagine: getting hundreds of European students together in a relatively inflexible and largely less accessible Europe than we know nowadays. The large conference-debate in the Sorbonne was the opportunity to meet the European Commissioner in charge of education, and the representative of the organisation and planning of the ERASMUS programme(3).
October 1985: Election of the first AEGEE executive board
In October 1985, the first executive board of the European students’ assembly Assemblée des Etats Généraux des Etudiants Européens: AEGEE) was elected. It was chaired by Franck Biancheri and within 3 years there were 10 000 members.
1986: Year of AEGEE takeoff
January 1986, within one year AEGEE evolved from 8 local satellites to about thirty. In 1986 the 2nd European Students general meeting (EGEE 2) was also successfully organised and gained recognition from the British, French and German leaders of that time i.e. Mrs Thatcher, Mr Mitterrand and Mr Kohl. The year was favourable for meetings with officials of the European Commission in charge of education. And last but not least, it was also the year when AEGEE decided to support the ERASMUS programme which was on the verge of dieing and being buried in the “cemetery of beautiful European projects”. Through dozens of conferences and colloquia in the Universities of the EU, which were systematically promoting the existence of the Erasmus project, and using political lobbying on the highest level, Aegee-Europe launched the first large trans-European citizen’s campaign in EU history.
Start of 1987: From the blockers of ERASMUS…
At the start of this year with EGEE III in sight, and in spite of articles published in main newspapers of the European countries concerning the theme launched by Aegee-Europe in its events, “ERASMUS inspired the European students”, it clearly appeared that this programme was most likely going to die.
According to the European Council of Education ministers, the main problem was the budget! While the brand new ‘objective 92 of the common market had just been decided on, international student exchanges were at that time mainly with the United States, and everyone was certain this was going to remain the same …
In fact, the real issue was not so much budgetary but rather political, not amongst the top level political leaders … but at senior officials level. The administrations of the three key countries, Germany, France and United Kingdom were not at all happy to see this ‘occupied field’ – of education – be placed outside of their national grip. That was the first lesson for the AEGEE founders concerning the ‘hidden’ power and influence exercised by the public administrations on public policies… and this is true for the European level as well! As for the national Student Unions, at the best they were indifferent, but they were mainly merely against Erasmus.
At the beginning of 1987, the AEGEE Europe team – after meeting Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers , Belgian Prime Minister, Wilfried Martens and Helmut Kohl counsellors – conscious of the rising risk of ERASMUS flopping, organised a meeting with President Mitterand via a well introduced contact at Elysée Palace. The team was indeed informed thanks to its contacts at European Commission level that the key countries for the adoption of the programme were France; Germany and UK and that they would unblock their budgets only if France would make the first move!
No meeting, but a meal at the table of the President was proposed by the AEGEE team as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of the signature of Rome Treaty.
All the mobilised team had only one goal at that time: to convince French President of the necessity to push for the creation of the ERASMUS programme.
And Franck Biancheri narrated the anecdotes of the President, visibly badly informed – in fact not informed at all –about the risk of the failure of ERASMUS, like a school teacher talking to his pupils, telling them about the story of the European construction. And the courage he needed to dare say in the middle of the meal, that obviously the President had not understood why they had come!
And how within an atmosphere which you could have cut, and already thinking they would be escorted back to the forecourt of the Elysée by the Republican Guards, the team was pleasantly surprised to see the President totally change his attitude, attentive, and announcing the following day to the media that he would support the programme(4) “and that he found it unacceptable that a few million ECUs were not available for the programme when billions were spent on agriculture…”. A few weeks later, the European Council of Education Ministers adopted ERASMUS(5).
As a conclusion, the following points need to be stressed again:
1. If the students of AEGEE-Europe had not taken a decisive step at that time, ERASMUS would have been rejected a third time by the European Council of Education Ministers in 1987. Nobody would have known that such an opportunity existed. And the lives of 1.5 million European students would not have been enriched by the experience of meeting other Europeans.
2. The ERASMUS programme was innovative when it started, but in 1991 it had already become old-fashioned. Indeed from this time onward Franck Biancheri kept warning the European Commission about the necessity of expanding the programme in such a way that, not 1% but 10% of each generation would be able to take advantage of this European school.
3. Even today, ERASMUS is still the only EU programme with a truly European horizon, and it was created 20 years ago. We could say that ERASMUS has already become quite an old policy. The EU is presently an inflexible blocker, and this deadlock is a consequence of an increasingly crippling institutional frame, bureaucratic and obsolete, which does not depend on any democratic control, and is now unable to launch large-scale projects. According to Franck Biancheri, today’s EU would not be capable of launching « ERASMUS ».
4. In an effort to find a way out of the current dead-end for the EU, and establish new ambitious goals for the European Education policies, NEWROPEANS is starting a special operation within the Newropeans Democracy Marathon 2007 : « Erasmus is 20 years old: let’s give him a child»(6).
As ERASMUS can only exist thanks to the strong movement of a few thousands European students in 1987, the future of ERASMUS and maybe the future of the EU, certainly depends on the 1.5 million former ERASMUS students
David Carayol (The Children of Erasmus, Bits of News 18.01.2007)
(1) See The Emergence of Eurocitizens, a brief history of AEGEE-Europe from its creation to April 1988 (the “Little Blue Book”) written by Franck Biancheri (first edition 1996 – second edition 2015, Editions Anticipolis) approved before printing by all the members of the AEGEE executive board who were present between 1986 and 1988.
(2) These sponsors seemed necessary to the leading team to strengthen the credibility of this event, the first of its kind.
(3) The ERASMUS programme had been politically decided upon in a European summit two years previous, but it was put on hold after that for « budget reasons » and was about to be completely abandoned if rejected a third time in 1987.
(4) See also: Entretien de M. François Mitterrand, Président de la République, accordé à TF1 le 27 mars 1987 en direct du Salon de l’étudiant à La Villette, sur la coopération universitaire européenne et le rôle de l’université. Vie Publique
(5) The programme was definitively adopted on June 15th, 1987 – Source: Toute l’Europe
(6) More about coming soon