Erasmus+: an asset in EU external action and cultural diplomacy
By Constance Bobotsi
The international dimension of the EU’s Higher Education Erasmus+ programme contributes to EU international cultural relations. While the next EU budget (2021-2027) is being negotiated this post looks at Erasmus+’ impact and its role in the EU’s public and cultural diplomacy efforts.
A study on Erasmus+ in the Balkans and Eastern Europe
In my postgraduate thesis at the College of Europe, I explored the degree of embeddedness of Erasmus+ in the EU neighbourhood and enlargement policies – with Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina as case studies. I compared Erasmus+ activity in the three countries through the lenses of three main factors: their objectives, the conditions of their implementation, and their acceptance in the three countries.
Comparing Erasmus+ in the Balkans and Eastern Europe
The findings indicate that the international dimension of Erasmus+ is rather ambitious in its objectives, forming a solid basis for the EU’s engagement in the two regions under scrutiny. In Eastern Partnership countries, Erasmus+focuses more on general objectives such as Higher Education modernisation than on specific synergies with the Eastern Partnership policy framework. In the Western Balkans, Erasmus+ objectives tie in with accession requirements and enlargement policy aims more explicitly, particularly promoting societal reconciliation and organic socioeconomic growth.
The overall programme design creates a synergy in Erasmus+’ implementation, as its international dimension is financed by external financial instruments (including the European Neighbourhood Instrument and the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance which cover the two regions). In the Eastern Partnership, implementation largely confirms the previous conclusion that the EU’s approach is primarily based on universal principles, although additional funding is made available for countries that have signed Association Agreements, thus encouraging further alignment. In the Western Balkans, the EU’s implementation approach to some extent follows internal EU policy trends, while representatives of Western Balkan states are invited to relevant EU meetings, in this way prompting socialisation and a smoother integration into the EU. Embeddedness of Erasmus+ implementation in the EU enlargement policy framework is thus moderate to high.
Looking more closely at Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, acceptance of Erasmus+ is high in all three countries. They each share high ambitions for EU accession; a high number of applications in Erasmus+, and significant financial and policy support from the EU. Similarly, they all face problems in implementing lasting reforms. In Georgia, government instability often brings policy progress to a standstill, in the Republic of Moldova the need for quality improvement is consistently underlined, while in Bosnia and Herzegovina the fragmentation of the competence in education policy often hinders the emergence of a unified national position.
Erasmus+ engagement & other EU external policies
Overall, my comparative analysis of the two regions shows that Erasmus+ engagement does not substantially depend on the EU’s overarching geographic priorities and policies, although there is a higher degree of integration between programme and policy in the Western Balkans. A better embeddedness of Erasmus+ within external policies could accelerate reforms in partner countries and help promote a more coherent and unitary image of the EU as a global actor. With these in mind, the negotiation of a new programme and budget for the 2021-2027 period presents a unique opportunity to refine Erasmus+ based on the experience of the 2014-2020 programme to better link it to the EU’s overall external action.
There is a higher degree of integration between Erasmus+ programme and EU policy in the Western Balkans than in the Eastern Partnership.
The European Commission could consider introducing conditionality as a link between EU policies and the Erasmus+ programme. Both the neighbourhood and the enlargement policies are based on a system of conditions and rewards, which Erasmus+ can strengthen. Benchmarks established in the framework of Erasmus+ can be utilised to measure progress and reward partner countries accordingly. Meanwhile, the inclusion of Erasmus+ activities in the conditionality equation can create a positive knock-on effect to facilitate more difficult and costly reforms in other areas, notably in the fields of “good governance”, human rights, and rule of law. The EU could promote case-by-case differentiation by offering ‘more for more’ rewards and opening up additional strands of the programme to its closest partners in the Eastern Partnership. Such a measure would prevent the saturation of interest and progress towards reforms in the more Europhile states, while not alienating less involved partners.
The EU’s external action can benefit and remain relevant for the 21st century through investment in and synergies with its most renowned programmes, like Erasmus+
Erasmus+ as a perception shaper
Most importantly, the EU should acknowledge Erasmus+’ role as a perception shaper beyond the EU27 borders. As such, it is an invaluable tool for the Union’s public and cultural diplomacy, projecting the image of an open EU to different parts of society, socialising young people and academics into the EU’s norms and values, and enriching public dialogue in partner countries. As Piros and Koops argue, the EU must ‘[diversify] its diplomatic toolkit not in a vacuum, but linking the appropriate policy instruments with the relevant actors’ if it is to remain relevant in today’s global diplomatic landscape. Policy-makers should thus consider embedding Erasmus+ in the EU’s diplomatic strategies as a tool for grassroots intercultural encounters, which in turn can augment the overall EU narrative and its reception abroad.
All in all, if one thing is to be taken away from this piece of research, it is that the EU’s external action and cultural diplomacy can benefit and remain suitable for the 21st century through synergies with, investment in, and embeddedness of its most renowned programmes, like Erasmus+.
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These views are personal and do not represent the views of culture Solutions as an organisation.