Tuesday 19. October 2021
#171 - May 2014


ERASMUS+ without Erasmus?


The great European humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam, lived and worked for sixteen years – from 1514 to 1529 and from 1535 until his death in July 1536 – in Basel. We have to ask ourselves today, would an Erasmus in Basel still be imaginable, or would he fall foul of the (planned) measures between Switzerland and the European Union?

On 9 February 2014, 55.8% of the Swiss electorate voted on an initiative to introduce quantitative limits to immigration, coming out in favour of the proposal by a hair’s breadth – 50.3% to 49.7%. This initiative was put forward by the Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People’s Party), who claim that Switzerland has lost control of immigration into the country. The main cause is seen as the uncontrolled influx of migrants from the EU, with which Switzerland has concluded bilateral treaties that include adopting the free movement of people, one of the four fundamental freedoms of the EU.


The European Commission reacted immediately to the results of the referendum. In a press release issued on the evening of the same day, it announced that it would “examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole. In this context, the Federal Council's position on the result will also be taken into account.” According to Commission President Barroso, Switzerland cannot fully benefit from the advantages of the Single Market while at the same time limiting access by EU citizens, when such restrictions do not exist for Swiss citizens entering the EU. “There can be no cherry-picking,” stated President of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz. It is still uncertain exactly how the situation will develop: the Federal Council has three years in which to progress the implementation of the referendum.


ERASMUS: the first victim?

As an initial step, Switzerland has not signed the already-negotiated treaty for the free movement of people with new EU member Croatia.  As a result, the EU suspended negotiations for Switzerland’s participation in the EU research programme “Horizon 2020” and the “ERASMUS+” programme. These actions, the EU’s first specific reaction to the referendum, affect a group that may in fact have voted against the initiative, as part of the majority of the electorate who actually voted; but at the same time this group largely failed to participate in the voting: only 17% of young people voted, compared with more than 70% of the over-50s. However, on the evening of the referendum it dawned on many students that they could be a (first) victim of the referendum. Hundreds of students demonstrated on the streets of Zurich and other major cities.


Switzerland cooperates with the EU and is effectively part of the European Economic Area within a framework of seven treaties. The “Guillotine clause” concerning the treaties means that all seven treaties cease to apply if one of them is terminated. This includes the treaty for Switzerland’s participation in the ERASMUS student exchange programme, to date the most successful programme of the EU.


However it should not be forgotten that the negotiations between Switzerland and the European Union regarding this programme have not augured entirely well: since 2012 Switzerland has sought to negotiate renewal of its participation in ERASMUS, so far unsuccessfully. The EU justified its refusal by saying that the legal basis for the programme must first be adopted before further talks could be held. This was decided on 11 December 2013, leaving only 8 weeks for the negotiations, which began with a surprise for Switzerland. Instead of the CHF 185 million approved by the Swiss Federal Council, the European Commission demanded CHF 370 million for Swiss participation in the programme. The Swiss government sought to gain some time, so that a final vote on Switzerland staying in the programme need not be voted on until 2016. Leaving the programme would mean that the Swiss government would have to implement national measures to monitor academic and scientific activities by Swiss researchers in EU countries. The exclusion from ERASMUS is not only painful for Swiss nationals: how many young Europeans would no longer be able to study at the ETH Zurich or the St. Gallen research university, both top-ranking European research institutions?


In a Statement the “European University Association” called on both the EU and the Swiss government to do all they could to enable Switzerland to participate in all European research and study programmes, now and in the future. It would be inexcusable if Swiss academics were excluded from a future Erasmus programme...


Michael Kuhn



Translated from the original text in German

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