I love a good social media debate. The other day I shared a Facebook status backing the ‘RemaIN’ campaign without giving it much thought. The meme consisted in an image with an anaphoric list: ‘Choose Leave. Choose a recession. Choose losing your job…’. It continued in the same damning fashion, citing the typical fears relating to a Brexit. You’ve heard them all before: higher import tax, complicated export paperwork, Scotland leaving the UK, and so on.
Shortly after I posted this status, a comment popped up: ‘None of these things are relevant to a Brexit’, my Facebook chum chimes; and with that, another juicy debate kicked off. Whilst I agreed with him that some of these concerns are based in speculation rather than certainty, these are nevertheless serious risks that should clearly factor into the decision-making and the case for RemaIN. Besides, certain EU-specific benefits, such as ease of travel, EU roaming charges, and the right to reside in another EU country, would most certainly be called into question were we to leave the Union.
As the comments kept rolling in and I continued to defend my position, I came to realise that one EU-specific benefit in particular is very close to my heart. It’s probably one of the main reasons why I have come to feel so passionate about safeguarding EU citizenship for myself and for others, especially those at the beginnings of their career. The benefit I’m referring to is the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, or ‘Erasmus’ programme. Founded in 1987, the programme allows you to study and work in another European country at no extra cost within the framework of your degree. As an Erasmus student from an EU country, you may spend 2-3 months to a year studying or working in another European country. This period is acknowledged by your university through a common European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) in which no extra tuition fees are paid, and Erasmus grants are also offered to help cover any additional expenses that might arise from living abroad. Financial aid works differently for non-EU students, on the other hand, who are required to pay tuition fees to the host university. (See http://www.mastersportal.eu/articles/405/tuition-fees-at-universities-in-europe-overview-and-comparison.html).
Over 4,000 institutions participate in the Erasmus programme and millions of students have benefitted from it since its inception. Having undertaken two separate Erasmus programmes myself, I have experienced the benefits of this EU-wide scheme first-hand. Living, working, and studying abroad within the framework of the Erasmus programme has been one of the most enriching learning curves of my life so far. Thanks to my Erasmus internship with an international real estate organisation in Paris, I learned all about French work-life and gained an insider’s perspective of the property market. In Spain, I was able to study at Vigo University in Galicia, where my cultural awareness and communication skills flourished.
The Erasmus programme facilitated my first (and hopefully not last) experience of living abroad, immersed in a foreign culture and surrounded by people who speak a foreign language. I was granted exclusive access to a diverse networking community and found myself making friends from people all over the world. I also came to master two foreign languages to professional standard. Indeed, the benefits of my Erasmus experience in terms of personal development, socialisation, and career prospects cannot be underestimated.
Don’t just take my word for it: in terms of employability post-Erasmus, impact studies have shown that exchange students have a distinct advantage on the job market compared with students who haven’t completed an exchange. 90% of the former group affirm that their employability-related soft skills have seen an improvement thanks to the programme. This includes knowledge of other countries, ability to establish social and professional relationships with people from different cultures, foreign languages, communication skills in general, and all-round adaptability. (See http://ec.europa.eu/education/library/study/2014/erasmus-impact_en.pdf).
Other exchange programmes for non-students have been put into place by the EU to enable young professionals to gain new skills abroad. The Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs (EYE), for example, allows budding entrepreneurs to complete a placement with an experienced entrepreneur in another EU country in order to acquire the necessary skills to run their own business with an international outlook. The exchange helps forge cross-border partnerships while providing both parties involved with an invaluable insight into foreign markets. Of course, in order to participate in the scheme, you must have permanent residency within an EU member state. (see http://www.erasmus-entrepreneurs.eu/).
In a nutshell, as this European game of hokey cokey reaches its finale, remember that your vote in the upcoming referendum will affect young British people’s access to international education and apprenticeship schemes that revolutionise lives, promote tolerance, and improve talent in the workforce.