Unity in Diversity - and in Erasmus?

By Annamária Tóth | 8 September 2012

To quote this document: Annamária Tóth, “Unity in Diversity - and in Erasmus?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 8 September 2012, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1523, displayed on 03 February 2023

L'Auberge espagnole, the great potluck – all synonyms for the Erasmus programme, which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. Now probably more than ever, Erasmus is referred to as the facilitator of a European identity. Today's students are the new 'Erasmus generation': young, mobile, European – or are they?

In November 2011, the European Commission presented its new plan of uniting all educational exchanges under the 'Erasmus for all' headline and raised its budget by 85%. Needless to say, Erasmus is seen as one of the European Union's (EU) central tools in creating a feeling of European belonging. Meeting other Europeans, the argument goes, will raise a cultural awareness and openness, thus contributing to a stronger feeling of 'unity in diversity'. This is all good in theory but is it the same in practice? After all, while Erasmus has played a key institutional role in promoting European identity and economic mobility, the number of participants is quite low. Within the EU27, Luxembourg, Spain and Finland are on the lead with 30.7, 10.7 and 10.4 per cent of their respective student populations on exchange for the academic year 2010/11. This should be compared to the EU average of 4.5 per cent, which is far away from the Commission's goal of 20 per cent by 2020. On a more optimistic note, in the year 2007/2008, the EU average was 0.92 per cent – in other words, there has been a four-fold rise within three academic years. 

In his article on the identity-building function of the Erasmus programme, Iain Wilson argues that Erasmus and other community programmes differ from other academic exchanges in their clearly political and identity-building goal. This is why the actual effects on the target population (i.e. the 'Erasmus generation') are worth studying.

Researching the 'Erasmus Generation'

First, Russell King's and Enric Ruiz-Gelices's research shows that students who have already been abroad were more positively attuned towards issues of European integration than students who have not yet been abroad or sedentary students, a fact also shown by Emmanuel Sigalas and Iain Wilson. Based on results from Eurobarometer surveys, King and Ruiz-Gelices point out that being positive about Europe is generally a growing phenomenon that is most common among the youth. Around half of the students polled in their surveys realised that there was a common European cultural sphere during their exchange. Attachment to Europe also correlated positively with repeated stays abroad after the exchange and where the students stayed at the time of the survey (i.e. at home or abroad). They therefore conclude that the year abroad has a positive effect on both knowledge about Europe and European identity, without, however, considering whether the causality is not reverse: pro-Europeans may also be more likely to embrace mobility.

In contrast, Emmanuel Sigalas is more hesitant in drawing a straight connection between the Erasmus term and a strengthening of a European identity. The students in his longitudinal survey are British students going abroad or staying at home and exchange students coming to the UK. Sigalas's results show that the students have improved their foreign language skills, but there is “no evidence that the ERASMUS experience leads students to adopt a European self-identity” (Sigalas, 2009, p. 14), even though the Erasmus students are more likely to see themselves as primarily or exclusively European than the sedentary control group.

Finally, Iaian Wilson conducted his research with two groups of students: the first were Erasmus students and the second sedentary students acting as a control group. Both groups filled out a questionnaire on their voting behaviour and European vs. national identities before the Erasmus students went abroad and after they had come back. As there were no significant differences related to the Erasmus term abroad in the students' attitudes, there is then, according to Wilson, “no support for the hypothesis that taking part in the Erasmus programme leads to revolutionary changes in students' political views in the short term” (Wilson, 2011, p. 1135).

Another study carried out by Óscar Fernández points out the discrepancies of Europe's present state, where old, national(ist) tendencies are often in conflict with the comparably new process of integration. Fernández's qualitative research consists of questionnaires with open questions distributed to around 200 students and open interviews with 31 of them. Fernández argues that higher education does indeed have a potential to form a feeling of citizenship in young Europeans. This means that more initiatives should be undertaken to develop citizenship as social practice. Citizenship, then, evolves through the interaction of citizens and through their European experience(s).

Erasmus and European Identity in the Making

The articles discussed here have shown that there does not seem to be quantitative evidence of a positive effect of the Erasmus term on the development of a European identity, even though some of the results indicate that Erasmus students do have some kind of European awareness. Does this mean that the EU institutions' support of Erasmus as a promoter of Europeanness might have failed? Yes and no.

Looking at European identity from a dynamic perspective in contrast to traditional oppositions between European vs national identities, the Erasmus programme's contribution to establishing a European identity could be seen as a bottom-up and qualitative rather than quantitative process. For example, Kalypso Nicolaïdis talks about " Europe 2.0 " : a space to which different actors add a variety of building blocks and exchange others; this is a kind of Facebook-Europe. For her, at every level of European governance, be it social, environmental, economic, political, or even daily life, it is necessary to introduce a sustainable approach based on difference and not on unity: “the EU will only be sustainable as a political project if its leaders and citizens abandon the equation of integration with oneness, top-down policy design and simple hierarchical structures, all anachronistic in a 2.0 world.” (Nicolaïdis, 2010, p. 24).

Moreover, in the studies quoted above, Erasmus students are generally more favourable to European integration than their 'sedentary' colleagues. The question, then, arises whether this, by itself, is not a result or a sign of growing Europeanisation: some students simply consider it as part of their studies to go on Erasmus. The research discussed here has indeed shown that Erasmus students sometimes talk about a general European awareness during their stay, which is, however, not necessarily connected to the EU. In other research, too, exchange students explained how there was usually a 'continental European core' in their communities.


Nonetheless, there seems to be an inherent ambiguity: as Fernández explains in his research, while young Europeans profit daily from such things as borderless travel, they do not really know about European politics, policies, and other issues. Therefore, it would be hard to conclude that there is a European identity because of Erasmus (indeed, Erasmus is part of a more general trend, which is mobility linked to the four fundamental freedoms). So, if there is a European identity at all, it is not a monolithic identity in the traditional sense. It is rather connected to a process which might be described as an emerging, mobile and multiple identity. In this sense, the Erasmus programme is one of the practices building up a European identity which, to borrow Charles Delanty's words, "is not an already existing identity, the property of the fiction of a ‘European people’, but a more diffuse and open ended process of cultural and institutional experimentation." (Delanty, 2002, p. 357)

Further reading



On Nouvelle Europe

To read

Photo sources:

  • "Open Day 2012 in Strasbourg" on Flickr, last accessed 2 September 2012.
  • "2010/2011 1st semester ERASMUS students reception at ISCTE-IUL group photo. Hugo Alexandre Cruz photography" on Flickr, last accessed 2 September 2012.