Thursday

1st Sep 2016

Focus

Students should vote for pro-Erasmus MEPs

  • 'We are a far cry from a situation where everyone who wants to go abroad gets a chance to do so' (Photo: Lawrence OP)

European elections have a bad reputation. Most people consider them, well, meaningless.

They think their vote is not going to change what happens in Brussels and, consequently, they vote in much the same way as they would in national elections – for or against their domestic government.

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For many voters the benefits of European Union are admittedly difficult to convey. But for students things are different. The popular exchange programme, Erasmus, provides them with crucial funds to finance a study period abroad. Their interest in the May elections should therefore be higher, especially when considering what happened in 2012.

“You don't know what you've got till it's gone,” as the proverb goes. When in December 2012 the unthinkable happened and squabbles over the EU budget led to Erasmus funds running dry, thousands of exchange students were stranded in a foreign country without their grant.

The reaction that this provoked was stunning. Fuelled by widespread media reports about “the end” of Erasmus, thousands of students rushed to platforms like Facebook and Twitter to pledge their support to the programme.

Within days the crisis was averted, a compromise between the European Parliament and the EU Council was found, and the flow of funds to students across Europe was unblocked.

This episode teaches us two things: one, Erasmus has the potential to mobilise people. In the cold and dark winter days of 2012 hundreds of thousands of students took to the streets of the virtual world to protest against damaging Erasmus.

Musicians, authors, sports stars, and artists (among them Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar) joined the effort by sending an open letter to EU capitals urging member states not to risk the future of the programme.

Combine this with the millions of former students that have benefited from the programme since 1987 and you get a sense of just how many people actually care about Erasmus.

The second lesson that we can draw from the December 2012 incident is this: the European Parliament matters!

Having started as an annex to the EU with little practical relevance it has expanded considerably in role and function. Just how decisive it has become might be best illustrated by the budgetary procedure, where it is on an equal footing with member states since the Lisbon Treaty.

While in the past the parliament could be side stepped, it now has to actively agree to the EU’s budget. The composition of the parliament, therefore, has a direct impact on how much money is allocated to which Union programmes.

We have merged these two basic insights in an attempt to reach out to students and increase their impact on the May elections through a project called “Help Erasmus”.

The idea behind it is simple.

We will publish a table with people running in the elections who support adequate funding for EU exchange programmes like Erasmus in the future. This will allow students to identify candidates who are particularly supportive of the Erasmus programme.

The list already includes 70-odd (current and re-running) MEPs and is open to members of all political groups. In fact, we would like to have candidates from all parties listed for each country until election day.

Students could then vote in accordance with their general political orientation. But within this party they might as well vote in favour of an MEP supporting Erasmus.

Students cast one in ten votes

In total, 400 million people will be eligible to vote in the elections. But probably only 200 million of them will vote.

There are around 20 million students in the EU. Therefore every tenth vote could be cast by a student.

It does not take a lot of imagination to realise the impact that they could have on the election outcome when voting together. Students taking part in the elections lose nothing when voting “twice” (once for the party that they would have supported anyway + once for Erasmus).

The electoral law of 20 member states enables its citizens to cast preferential votes. Those who want to support Erasmus can simply enter the name of one of the candidates from our project’s homepage in the relevant section on the ballot.

In other states the concept of preferential votes does unfortunately not exist yet. Here students could write candidates that they, too, support Erasmus financing in the future.

While funds for Erasmus have steadily increased, the number of students who are interested in studying abroad has also expanded.

We are a far cry from a situation where everyone who wants to go abroad gets a chance to do so. For the first time students will have the means and the motive to cast their vote in favour of EU exchange programmes.

The signs so far are encouraging that students understand what is at stake. Several European student associations (ESN, ESU, EMSA, AEGEE) already support the project.

However, in the end its success will depend on the resolve of individual students to go vote in the EP elections and help Erasmus.

They could show that they not only support the programme on Twitter and Facebook when it is on the brink of collapse, but realise that in a democracy the most meaningful mechanism to shape the world around them is elections.

The writer is doing a PhD at the European University Institute in Florence. He was a member of the citizens’ committee of Fraternité 2020 - the EU’s first European Citizens’ Initiative

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