I voted Leave, but we should seek to remain participants in the EU’s Erasmus+ student exchange scheme

I voted Leave, but we should seek to remain participants in the EU’s Erasmus+ student exchange scheme

It was a hot Brexit summer, certainly in terms of the temperature of much of the debate, denunciation and denial that took place. Time now for cooler autumnal heads to prevail with the realisation that – beyond defining yourself as a Leaver or a Remainer – the immediate future holds a lot of work for all of us to build a better future for Britain.

As a Conservative MEP I see a significant part of my role as being to ensure the UK gets the best deal possible as we leave the EU; the best deal possible for both sides ideally. Inevitably there will be much focus upon the Single Market, free trade and ‘passporting’ etc., but the EU’s reach goes way beyond those headline items. We need to be clear about which EU rules and programmes are worth holding on to – or trying to hold on to – and which can be dropped, some of them like the proverbial ‘hot brick’.

Within one of my own fields – education and culture – the hot brick is the ‘Europe for Citizens’ programme, with, just a little lower on the temperature scale one called ‘Creative Europe’ (although the creative sector should clearly feature prominently in any future ‘Industrial Strategy’). Others, such as the Horizon 2020 research and development programme (some £71 billion over seven years) need to be handled with care; they have much to commend them.

Also important is the EU student exchange programme Erasmus+. I am a strong supporter of Erasmus+, I considered it a clear benefit to the UK from its membership of the EU. Clearly, many other things outweighed its importance in the opposite, Leave, direction, but that does not mean that it should now be overlooked.

When someone like Tim Farron speaks up for an EU programme, as he has for Erasmus+, most people – quite rightly – just switch off or at least take such views for granted. However, at the not inconsiderable risk of sounding pretentious, maybe when one of the ‘turkeys who voted for Christmas’ – a Leave MEP such as myself – does so, perhaps it should carry a little more weight? The cultural and educational development of young people that has emerged from this initiative is an indisputable fact across all participating countries and ideological camps. I have seen the benefits first hand in my role as a University Governor.

However, when it comes to negotiating the future of Erasmus+ in the UK, one thing has to be made clear. The UK and the EU stand on an equal footing. Since the start of the programme we have shown we have as much to offer as we have to gain. The latest figures from the European Commission demonstrate that the UK has received way more students than it sends abroad. In the academic year 2012-13, the UK sent 14,600 students elsewhere in the EU but received 27,100. It would be a pity to deny this exchange experience to students who want to be a part of it on either side.

Having voted in 2014 to restrict freedom of movement, Switzerland is now working on its alternative scheme to re-join the Erasmus scheme via its own federal government funding – the Swiss-European Mobility Programme. Even before the Brexit vote of June 2016 the EU was being difficult with Switzerland over their own referendum vote, suspending them from Erasmus. ‘Difficult’ to an extent that some – me, for instance – would regard as bullying. With Brexit in the mix, the prospects for an EU deal with the Swiss, one that does not ride rough-shod over the wishes of its people, still seems uncertain.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the profits of German car makers and French Champagne sellers cited as the sort of reasons why the EU will eventually come up with a good trade deal with the UK. The same enlightened self-interest arguments should apply to Erasmus+. Unfortunately the same stubbornness and insistence that freedom of movement is compulsory for there to be a deal is already just as observable from the Commission and leading MEPs as regards Erasmus+ as it has been for the Single Market and other (held to be) key planks of future UK – EU relations.

The traditional UK view of the EU as being about trade and largely transactional in nature can trip us up here. It is not with admiration that Commission Vice-President Timmermans observes, “The Brits have always seen Europe as a market, nothing more.” Therefore, it would be a mistake to assume that mutual benefit will override zeal for ‘the project’. A mistake to assume that some ‘leaders’, such as Jean-Claude Juncker and Francois Hollande, would not harm their own economies and peoples and the opportunities potentially open to those people as they seek to punish the UK for daring to leave their elite project. The EU as a protection racket, as my MEP colleague Dan Hannan put it recently – pay up and shut up or we will make you suffer.

Consider too the hubris so deeply entrenched within the EU institutions and their cheerleaders. French-based ‘Erasmus World’ having this to say: “…do not forget to show your support for British youth. The latter will see their dreams and cultural exchange darken. Contrast to European students who will keep a wide choice with administrative ease and economic aid.” This in the context of the UK having the best and most international university sector in Europe and the Eurozone experiencing some of the highest youth unemployment on earth.

However, all is not lost. Wiser heads than some of those referred to or quoted above may prevail. A redefinition of freedom of movement, which for the UK could mean going back to the pre-Maastricht Treaty definition of taking up a bona fide and individual job offer for which you are qualified, could satisfy – or at least appease – both sides. Variants to this – ‘Freedom of Academic Movement’ one might say – were recently put forward by Jamie Martin, Michael Gove’s former special adviser, in the Times Higher Education and by Prof Paul McCutcheon, Vice-President of the University of Limerick, in the Irish Times.

It is also worth pointing out that Romania and Bulgaria were full participants in Erasmus+ well before those countries’ citizens were granted EU freedom of movement. It does not follow that freedom of movement as now defined is an essential prerequisite of participation. It is not the case that a Swiss or Norwegian or Canadian model has to be applied to the UK. Brexit is too big for modified ‘off the shelf’ solutions. As Ross Clark put it in Spectator Schools recently, “If countries that have never been part of the EU can take part, why should a former EU member be kicked out?”

The UK should be as constructive as possible in efforts to remain in Erasmus+ but if the EU is determined to punish its own young people in some pathetic attempt to frighten other countries off seeking their freedom, then it only serves to underline why it proved to be an organisation unworthy of our continued membership.