Riding for Erasmus

With a mere four per cent of students taking advantage of the European Union’s ­exchange ­programme, activists are touring the continent by bike to raise awareness

Photo: Christian Cummins

Photo: Christian Cummins

A dozen sturdy bikes whirr past on the sun-scorched path that weaves through the floodplains forest of the Lobau, just east of Vienna.

The group say they are a “moving megaphone” for a more integrated Europe. Sprouting from the luggage-carriers above their rear wheels, the bikes sport small flags that wag in the wind, giving the impression that the cyclists are a pack of happy terriers following a good scent.

“We’re riding for student rights,” says the group’s leader Julian Walkowiak, quoting the group’s motto as he pedals easily at the front of the bunch, “so more young people can have the chance to spend more time abroad with student programmes.” And so their journey will take them on a meandering 5,000 km trip from Vienna to Turkey’s capital Ankara.

The group itself is very international – as well as Austrians, there are riders from Germany, the Czech Republic, Serbia and even the ever-smiling Shuji Shimada from Japan, who is currently studying in Frankfurt. It will be an arduous trip: the activists face eight weeks in the saddle before they finally reach Anatolia. With a minimal budget, they are staying in the cheapest hostels or on the floors of school gymnasiums. But they feel the cause is worth it.

Erasmus, the EU’s leading educational exchange programme for higher education, has grown steadily in the 26 years since its inception. The number of countries participating has grown from 11 to 33, including non-EU members such as Turkey. Over 3 million students have taken part so far. But the activists feel that the system has become bogged down in recent years, swamped by unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles and wasteful administrative costs. Only a paltry 4% of European students take part in an exchange. Studying abroad remains a niche choice rather than a broad cultural movement.

The EU has the stated goal of raising the participation rate to 20% by 2020, but if that is to be achieved, changes will have to be implemented.

“There is not enough financing and the universities are too strict – they don’t recognise enough of the courses you take abroad,” says Walkowiak. “If those obstacles are removed maybe we can hit the targets.” Bureaucratic hurdles easily deter students. The Ride For Your Rights activists want to see a system that is simpler and thus more appealing to students. The ride will take the activists to as many centres of population as possible, where they will petition national politicians and European Members of Parliament with their suggestions.

Waving the group off at the ride’s start in Vienna, ÖVP politician and Vice-President of the European Parliament Othmar Karas declares promoting student mobility is a “key element” in creating a more integrated Europe, as he joins the group for a parade lap around the pink-bricked Börse. At the end of the hot first day of riding they meet Slovak MEP Monika Flašíková-Beňová in Bratislava and she promises to back their demands in Brussels. “This is about the future,” she stresses, “and more mobility has to be part of that future.”


“New and improved” Erasmus+ 

These activists cycling along the Danube met politicians on the way

These activists cycling along the Danube met politicians on the way | Photo: Ride for Your Rights

This time there seems to be real intent behind the fine rhetoric. In late June, the European Council and the European Parliament signed a deal to massively expand the scope, reach and ambition of the stalling Erasmus exchange scheme.

Rebranded as Erasmus+, the programme will receive €16 billion investment over the next 7 years, uniting other exchange programmes under one roof and incorporating vocational training and even sports in its partnerships.

Why does student mobility matter? Exchanges programmes are derided as a few months of international partying, and there is plenty of that, but it’s essential that young Europeans think more internationally.

Obviously this would bring more prospects for employment, a primary goal with youth employment hovering at 50% in parts of southern Europe.

But there is a more philosophical element too: “Everyone who lives in Europe should get an idea of what Europe means,” says Walkowiak. “And in order to do that, you need the opportunity of spending time abroad.”

Exchanges also lead to more tolerance, agrees Arne Traun from Salzburg. “You meet so many new people and have so many new experiences, I think it makes you more open minded.”

It’s about communication and empathy and the debt crisis has shown that we’re in short supply of both. In an orgy of mutual recriminations, EU nations have started to see each other as opponents rather than as partners.

German tabloids, lapped up by a resentful population, scorned Greeks as lazy and protesters in Athens characterised German politicians as Nazis.

We’ve seen few attempts to understand the mutual positions and constraints, nor much sensible popular debate to counter the cheap xenophobic slurs. The Ride For Your Rights crew believes a more mobile student population can change that.

For now, they’re pedalling along the former Iron Curtain. The once fortified line is now part of a giant nature reserve that hosts a cycle path, connecting rather than separating people.

Later in the day the group passes Sopronpuszta in Hungary near the Neusiedl Lake, the site of 1989’s Pan European Picnic where Laszlo Nagy helped melt the Iron Curtain by sizzling some sausages. The group stops and admires the white monument, a giant handshake set in stone.

It feels like a symbolic moment. Cutting down the barbed wire was only the first, but a very important step in bringing the countries of Europe closer together.

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