Record numbers sign up for Swiss Erasmus replacement

More people than ever are taking part in Switzerland’s study abroad scheme, despite the fact the country is no longer a full member of the EU’s Erasmus programme.

Record numbers sign up for Swiss Erasmus replacement
File photo: Francisco Osorio

Switzerland has previously participated in Erasmus, which was set up in the 1980s to facilitate student exchange between European countries.

But following the country’s anti-immigration referendum in 2014, which approved the principle of quotas on immigration, the EU suspended Switzerland’s membership of Erasmus+ (the scheme's 2014-2020 incarnation), saying the country’s stance was no longer compatible with the programme, which depends on the principle of free movement of people.

Later that year Switzerland announced an interim solution allowing it to offer student exchange as an Erasmus+ ‘partner country’ rather than a full member, by arranging a series of bilateral agreements with individual European universities under the new Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP) banner.

As it no longer receives funding from Brussels, Switzerland must fund the scheme itself, supporting both Swiss students who wish to study in another country and foreign students who want to come to Switzerland – a requirement if Switzerland wants its own students to be able to study elsewhere.

In 2016 the federal government allocated 25.1 million  francs ($25.6 million) to the task, funding a record 10,781 Swiss students and foreigners on study and vocational training placements, said Foundation ch, which is currently charged with running the SEMP scheme in Switzerland.

That’s a 12 percent increase on last year’s 9,650 students, funded by a budget of 23.9 million francs.

8,650 of this year’s exchanges are at tertiary level, up from 7,874 in 2015, an increase “principally explained by a more generous budget this year,” said the foundation.

Among 2016’s cohort, 4,789 Swiss students travelled to higher education institutions elsewhere and 3,861 came to Switzerland.

The success of Switzerland’s new study abroad arrangements will be of interest to Britain, whose future in Erasmus has also been thrown into question since it voted to leave the EU in June.

As for Switzerland, it  has until February 2017 to find a way of implementing quotas on immigration without upsetting its relationship with the EU.

Should a bilateral solution be found that satisfies both parties, it’s possible that Switzerland’s membership of Erasmus+ may be reinstated.

A newly established Swiss government body, the Swiss Foundation for the Promotion of Exchange and Mobility (SFAM) will take over running SEMP from January 1st 2017.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.