Because of future funding, Swiss participation in the Erasmus+ student exchange scheme was already looking rocky before the European Union froze Switzerland out of research and education funds following the February 9 vote to limit EU immigration.
Reports have surfaced that Brussels had demanded more funds for the Erasmus+ programme before the vote took place. This was not communicated to the public, nor to parliament, although Education Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann did tell his cabinet colleagues about it two weeks before the ballot.
The EU’s decision to exclude Switzerland from the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020, and from the student exchange programme Erasmus+ has caused an outcry in Switzerland, especially in the academic world.
A petition against the move organised by students has already gathered more than 10,000 signatures. University rectors have sent a letter to the Swiss government expressing their concern over possible negative impact.
More funds demanded
Schneider-Ammann has confirmed the information about the Erasmus+ funding revealed by Swiss public radio, SRF. It reported that Switzerland had already decided last year to allocate around CHF306 million ($345 million) for the participation of Swiss students in Erasmus+, but that the EU had decided to demand “a lot more”.
“We had to, indeed, take note from Brussels that more funds were expected than parliament had agreed to,” Schneider-Ammann told SRF on Wednesday.
Brussels’ request meant that Swiss negotiations with the EU on Erasmus+ could not be finished by the end of 2013, as had been planned.
Schneider-Ammann said he was sure that had the anti-immigration vote been rejected, the EU would have accepted the agreement as set out by the Swiss parliament. Extra funds for the programme for 2014-2020 would have been requested from the Swiss parliament at a later point, as a compromise.
Ministry spokesman Rudolf Christen also rejected any correlation between the money issue and the breaking off of negotiations. “There is no link. The agreement [on Erasmus] would have come into effect if there had been a ‘no’ to the immigration initiative,” he told the Swiss news agency.
Christen could not say how much more the EU had demanded from Switzerland.
However, Christoph Blocher, a leading figure in rightwing Swiss People’s Party whose party was behind the anti-immigration initiative, said he thought financial reasons did lie behind the EU’s decision regarding Erasmus.
He had publicly offered to help students suffering from the end of the exchange programme, encouraging them to write to him for help. As a result, Blocher has received more than 120 e-mails so far, he told the Le Temps newspaper. Students have responded by setting up a website intended to show the politician how many will be affected by the vote’s fallout.
On Wednesday evening, the Union of Students of Switzerland said that it had received 10,000 signatures in 24 hours for its petition calling for an open European higher education area and for Switzerland to be able to take part in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. By Thursday morning, that number had risen to more than 14,000, according to the petition website.