Billy Vaughan talks to the “Father of Erasmus” about its difficult birth and its vital role in a new, fractured Europe.
For many UCD students, the name Sutherland is synonymous with law. They think of the brand new building beside the lake, and the legal eagles that pass through it every day. Many, however, will also be aware of the important global role of the man whose name it bears. Peter Sutherland has had a varied career, including roles as Attorney General of the Irish government, Founding Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, EU Commissioner, UN Special Representative for International Migration, and Chairman of various Multi National Corporations, including BP and Goldman Sachs.
He is one of the world’s most influential people, and is often seen at international summits such as Davos and the Bilderberg Group. If there is indeed a secret world government, it would be safe to say that Peter Sutherland probably holds a cabinet position. As UN Special Representative for International Migration, he plays a vital role in formulating policy in light of the recent refugee crisis. Most importantly for students however, he also founded an education initiative three decades ago that would become known as the Erasmus Exchange Programme.
Sutherland became European Commissioner for education for one year in 1985. It was in this year that he proposed the Erasmus programme. Getting the project off the ground, however, was initially quite difficult. At the time the EEC was still seen very much as solely an economic and not a political union, and many were unwilling to include education in its remit. “A number of Member States were particularly sensitive and even opposed to any further encroachment on national educational activities at community level and the lack of clarity around the training/education issue was anticipated to be likely to be used to block progress.” The plan was to argue that university education counted as “training”, which, being geared towards employment, was covered in the treaties.
The task of building popular support for the proposals began. Sutherland decided to launch the initiative at the conference of EGEE (Etats Generaux des Etudiants Européens) in Paris. It was in the main amphitheatre of the Sorbonne where Erasmus was first unveiled to a student body. “The Erasmus proposals received a great reception there from hundreds of students.” But while support amongst students was strong, there were still opponents in the European Community. “I had a number of occasionally turbulent meetings with the Council of Ministers regarding the proposed programme” he said, “before it was ultimately adopted in June 1987 by simple majority.”
Even there, the opposition did not stop. “This method of voting the Erasmus programme through was contested by a minority of Member States.” These states were still opposed to community interventions in education policy. The issue was brought before the European Court of Justice, which ruled in favour of Sutherland, allowing the majority decision to be upheld. “The result”, he says “is the Erasmus Programme.”
Since then the Erasmus Programme has gone from strength to strength, with 200,000 students going on exchange every year from more than 2,000 educational institutions. Sutherland is clear that the ultimate goal wasn’t merely education. It was to use the programme as a tool to further the wider project of European integration. “The ultimate objective was the process of integration between Europeans rather than the purely educational advantages that it would give. The reality is that we needed to create a new attitude to the EU which we still need to do today” he said. “This requires young people to recognise a common cultural and value based system the European countries share; and not to feel alien and different from others.”
“Everyone has a sense of nationality, I do myself. The whole aim of European integration is to tame nationalism and facilitate an understanding of different cultures in a non-adversarial way…”
The European climate today is, however, one that is very different to that of 1985. The very real threat of Islamic State and the recent Brussels and Paris attacks make many fearful of a Europe where movement is completely free. Some European countries are now rolling back on freedom of movement. An open letter was recently sent to the European Council, signed by 13 European student organisations, asking it to end temporary reintroductions of border controls between Schengen Area countries. Many are asking what role Erasmus plays in this difficult period for Europe, or whether it should even play a role at all anymore. Is the Erasmus programme in danger, or is it needed now more than ever?
“I think it’s still absolutely needed”, he says firmly. He speaks of the need to “attack nationalism in terms of attitudes”, rhetoric that many would see as controversial. Though he draws a distinction between national pride and the kind of destructive nationalism we have seen recently. “Everyone has a sense of nationality, I do myself. The whole aim of European integration is to tame nationalism and facilitate an understanding of different cultures in a non-adversarial way, and in way quite different to what history has shown us in the past”.
Overall, Mr. Sutherland has a very positive view of the Erasmus programme. “I would definitely put it up there with my proudest achievements. I was particularly proud to be called the father of Erasmus, but of course there are many others that deserve credit also.” He encourages anyone able to go to take the opportunity and reap the benefits. “I think Erasmus is an enormous benefit to the individuals who do it. It opens up their capacity to communicate in different ways that are necessary to deal with different cultures.”
As a UN special Representative for Migration, and being a previous holder of EU positions, Mr. Sutherland has been keeping a close eye on the various difficulties arising in Europe, both with the migration crisis and also the looming possibility of a Brexit. He calls the current pro-Brexit campaign as “toxic in the extreme” and “concerning for those of us who believe in Europe”. He notes that there is undoubtedly a different attitude to the EU in the UK compared to other member states, including Ireland. “In Ireland we believe that our sovereignty is enhanced by being part of this larger international structure, but in the UK they feel that the European project is undermining it.”
He also disagrees with the view that the UK is fundamentally different to the rest of the continent in terms of values and culture. “Britain brings a lot to the table in terms of its belief in open trade, its established democratic credentials and its support for the rule of law.” He acknowledges, however, that winning over the UK will be an uphill struggle, pointing out that participation of the UK in European integration programmes, such as Erasmus, is noticeably low.
Sutherland also notes the benefits of the Erasmus programme. “We have a lot in common with Europe but there are also differences. To be able to discern those differences and embrace them is an important attribute that would help people in later life.”