In his speech at La Sorbonne on September 26th, the President of the French Republic endorsed the proposition that “by 2024, half of an age group must have spent at least six months in another European country before reaching 25.”
Many young people are attracted by extremism, notably nationalism and islamism, and fuel the political, social and moral crisis that our continent is experiencing. Europe needs a profound democratic rebuilding, which places youth at its heart. Therefore, we, human rights activists, leaders of the youth world, stakeholders of the education sector, local, national and European elected people, intellectuals, artists, coming from various backgrounds and with different political, union or activist sensibilities but united by our shared attachment to democracy, call for the creation of “Universal Erasmus” or “Erasmus for all”.
“Universal Erasmus” is the generalization of the circulation of young people in Europe in order to deepen democracy. All young people in Europe, especially those who are the most excluded because of social, racial and territorial reasons, will be involved in this initiative together. It is not only a change of scale, but also a change in the nature of the programme which has made people love Europe and has allowed more than 9 million people to travel since 1987.
Concretely, this means years or semesters of exchange or time spent abroad for all students, apprentices and unemployed young people, class trips or short exchanges for all high school, middle school and primary school pupils. Pedagogical support will ensure that this movement implies a rejection of racism and antisemitism and a commitment to the values of democracy. Indeed, circulation alone does not necessarily imply humanism and openness on the world. If we know well that it is not possible to implement right now this generalization, we know just as well that it is right now that we need to resolutely get involved in this perspective in order for it to be implemented in the future, notably by elaborating solutions to the various issues it poses.
In particular, it is right now that we need to identify, elaborate and put in place the means for all those who are the most excluded because of social, racial and territorial reasons are included like the others. In doing so, Universal Erasmus will bring to life the fundamental values of democracy and will achieve a deep rebuilding of Europe.
First, this is an initiative for equality and justice. An entire generation will be included in a common project. The passage through Europe will reintroduce mobility at a time when societies in Europe are becoming more and more closed off, therefore unjust. This change of logic is strong: it is no longer a question of widening the sphere of beneficiaries around the “winners of globalization”, but rather its generalization, to include from now on and under the same title those who are considered the “losers of globalization.” This will reduce inequality of opportunity between different societal groups, which generates tensions.
Next, this is an initiative for freedom. By offering individuals the opportunity to develop themselves through meeting the Other, to freely form their identities in a non-xenophobic and fully European way, Universal Erasmus will offer them the possibility of emancipation. It is through this exchange that individuals will be able to best identify the cultural and national legacies that have been transmitted to them and open up perspectives to invent their own identity and to make their own life decisions.
Furthermore, this is a popular initiative for the concrete transformation of Europe. Universal Erasmus will be a new life experience for all young people, a real right and a tangible benefit gained thanks to Europe. By extension, all the families of the continent will be beneficiaries as the European experience and the image of Europe will be changed profoundly for tens of millions of individuals.
If it is fundamentally innovative, this new great European adventure is inscribed in the filiation of older schools of thought. Already in 1935, the philosopher Husserl, excluded from German University because he was a Jew, already considered the constitution of a European identity as the only way to resist nationalism that was spreading across Europe. Some years later, Stefan Zweig called for the circulation of young people in Europe, especially in the context of their education, and for the transmission of the history of culture as a shared experience, in order to strengthen European solidarity and avoid the moral disintegration of our continent.
Universal Erasmus is inscribed in the history of building a European identity and civil society to give it a renewed dynamic. In doing so, it will restore Europe’s ambition of civilization and strengthen solidarity between Europeans as well as citizens’ adhesion to shared institutions. It could be completed by the integration of other non-European countries and by a program of “European Peace Corps” in order to offer an openness on the world. By profoundly renewing the European project and placing youth at its heart, it will offer a path towards the future. In this respect, Universal Erasmus is a powerful contribution to the fight against extremism that attracts many young people. Of course, to achieve the effective implementation of Universal Erasmus, many challenges will have to be met, particularly linguistic, organizational, educational, institutional and financial.
The experiences acquired by institutions and by civil society at the European and local levels offer ideas on how to solve each problem. Financially, one should not be mistaken: Europe is experiencing a period of turbulence that could be fatal, and money will inevitably be spent in the future. Is it better to pay a high price for the costs of the displacement crises or to offer a chance to avoid them by investing in youth and democracy?
Universal Erasmus must now be part of the objectives, not only of France, but of all European countries. It is a vital necessity and a fundamental democratic imperative for our continent.