Erasmus+: UK participation post-Brexit

The UK’s future involvement in the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme is the subject of an upcoming question in the House of Lords on 25 June 2020. Baroness Coussins (Crossbench) is due to ask the Government what progress it has made in securing funding for the UK’s continued participation in the programme, or its successor, after the end of 2020.

What is Erasmus+?

Erasmus+ is the EU’s programme for education, training, youth and sport. It is open to education, training, youth and sport organisations across all sectors of lifelong learning, including school education, further and higher education, adult education and the youth sector. The UK National Agency that delivers Erasmus+ in the UK explains that through the programme:

  • Young people can study, volunteer and gain work experience abroad.
  • Staff can train or teach abroad.
  • UK organisations can collaborate with international partners.

The current Erasmus+ programme runs from 2014 to 2020. This period coincides with the EU’s seven-year budget cycle, or multi-annual financial framework (MFF). The overall Erasmus+ budget for the current cycle is €14.7 billion. According to the EU, 4 million people have had the opportunity to travel abroad under the scheme, including around 2 million university students, 650,000 vocational education and training students, and around 800,000 education staff. The UK National Agency has awarded €680 million in funding to nearly 5,000 projects in the UK since 2014 and 128,000 participants have travelled from the UK to another country to learn new skills.

Transition period

The UK is continuing to participate in Erasmus+ during the Brexit transition period that is set to last until the end of December 2020. This coincides with the duration of the current Erasmus+ programme under the EU’s MFF. The Government has explained this means that funding and exchanges already agreed will go ahead as planned:

“For students planning to study abroad in September 2020, the UK will continue to participate fully in the current (2014–2020) Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps (ESC) programmes under the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU. This means that the projects that have been successfully bid for during the current programmes will continue to receive EU funding for the full duration of the project, including for those programmes where funding runs beyond 2020 and the end of the transition period. Participants who are due to study, train, volunteer or spend time abroad through Erasmus+ and ESC exchanges will be able to participate fully and for the full duration of their exchange.”

What happens after the end of 2020?

The EU still needs to approve a legal instrument to establish the successor Erasmus+ programme for the 2021–27 MFF. In 2018, the European Commission proposed a budget of €30 billion for the successor programme. However, in February 2020, the European Council proposed cutting this by around 20 percent. The European Commission presented a new proposal for the MFF in late May 2020. This would allocate almost €28 billion in current prices to a new Erasmus+ programme.

The UK could potentially continue to participate in Erasmus+ as a third country (non-EU member). Currently, many non-EU countries take part in Erasmus+ to varying degrees. ‘Programme countries’ can fully take part in all elements of the programme. Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Turkey, Serbia and the Republic of North Macedonia are all non-EU programme countries. ‘Partner countries’ can take part in some elements of Erasmus+, subject to meeting specific criteria or conditions.

In 2019, the House of Lords European Union Committee recommended the UK should seek “full association”, ie programme country status, in the 2021–27 Erasmus programme. It recognised the cost of participating was likely to be higher than for the current Erasmus+, as the successor programme looks set to have a higher budget. However, the committee said it would be a worthwhile investment to maintain access to Erasmus and the partnerships the UK has built within Europe through the programme over the last 30 years. The committee thought partner country status was not an attractive option as UK participants would have access to less funding and fewer exchange opportunities.

The UK’s continued participation in the Erasmus programme after the end of the transition period is subject to negotiations with the EU on their future relationship.

Future relationship negotiations: what has been said about Erasmus+?

Political declaration

In the political declaration agreed between the UK and the EU in October 2019, the two sides agreed to establish general principles, terms and conditions for the UK’s future participation in EU programmes in areas including youth, culture and education. They agreed this would be subject to the conditions set out in the EU’s own legal instruments establishing such programmes. They also agreed any future UK participation should include a “fair and appropriate financial contribution, provisions allowing for sound financial management by both parties, and management and consultation appropriate to the nature of the cooperation”.

UK position

The UK published a paper in February 2020 setting out its overall approach to the future relationship. It said the UK was ready to consider standard third-country participation in certain EU programmes where it was in both sides’ interests. On Erasmus+ specifically, the paper said the UK would consider options for participation in elements of the programme on a time-limited basis, provided the terms were in the UK’s interests.

Since then, the UK has published a number of draft legal texts for the agreements it would like to reach with the EU in different sectors. None of these covers UK participation in Erasmus+.

Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, said this month that the Government knew “how important Erasmus is to many”. He said the Government would continue to seek membership of the programme.

EU position

The negotiating directives adopted by the Council of the European Union in February 2020 said that the future partnership agreement should establish general principles, terms and conditions for UK participation in EU programmes, in areas including youth, culture and education, when it was in the EU’s interest. It said this should include general rules for the financing and the control and audit of the implementation of the programmes, and the appropriate consultation of the UK.

The EU published a draft new partnership agreement in March 2020. This set out proposed general conditions for UK participation that would apply to all EU programmes listed in a protocol to the agreement. The protocol is blank in the draft legal text. The proposed general conditions include a requirement for the UK to make a contribution to the EU budget as a condition of participating in a programme. The payment would consist of a participation fee and an operational contribution. The EU could suspend UK participation if the UK did not pay its financial contribution.

Latest round of negotiations

Discussions on the potential terms for UK participation in Erasmus+ and other EU programmes took place during the fourth round of negotiations held by videoconference between 2 and 5 June 2020. More detailed information about what was discussed has not been made public.

Further negotiating rounds have now been scheduled to take place throughout July and August, but the published information does not reveal when Erasmus+ will next be discussed.

What if no agreement is reached?

The House of Lords European Union Committee said in 2019 that if association to Erasmus cannot be negotiated it would be essential to establish an alternative UK mobility scheme. It said this would need to be adequately resourced. However, it believed that even if the Government invested similar amounts into a domestic scheme, it would be impossible to replicate aspects of Erasmus such as its strong brand, trusted reputation, common rulebook and established network of potential partners.

The Government has said that in parallel with its negotiations with the EU, it is “continuing to develop the option for a domestic alternative to Erasmus+, to ensure that we are prepared for every eventuality”. It said last week it would publish information on a possible alternative, if appropriate, in due course.

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