Cillian Lohan, member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), Maurizio Cuttin, UK Young Ambassador to the European Youth Forum, and Ismael Páez Civico, Board Member at European Youth Forum, explore the impact of the current UK-EU relationship on young people and set out the EESC’s upcoming plans on UK-EU youth engagement and mobility.
European social partners and third-sector organisations have a say on various EU policies through the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). Following the entry into force of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement on 1 January 2021, the EESC set up its EU-UK Follow-up Committee to manage relations between UK and EU civil society and monitor EU-UK agreements and other key developments.
To build up its understanding of the relations between EU and UK civil society, last year the EESC visited the UK and published its findings in a report in January 2023. Among the report’s future objectives was to address young people’s concerns. In particular, the UK chose not to pursue continued participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ programme, which provides funding for student exchanges, non-formal training and other youth-related activities. Instead, the UK opted to launch the Turing scheme. The latter is global in scope rather than being focused on the EU, with limited scope in other aspects, and is therefore far from a replacement for Erasmus+. For instance, Erasmus + offers placements for teachers, college staff, and youth workers, whilst the Turing scheme does not. Rather, the Turing scheme only allows staff to accompany learners abroad for safeguarding purposes. Also, in contrast with Erasmus +, which offers grants to support travel and living costs for outgoing and incoming students, the Turing scheme does not financially support inbound students. This absence of financial support for incoming students could render UK universities unattractive, leading to a decrease in the number of European students wanting to study in the UK. For its part, Wales introduced Taith, its own student exchange programme, while Scotland announced plans for the Scottish Education Exchange Programme.
The Future UK-EU Relationship report released by the House of Lords European Affairs Committee sets out how post-Brexit barriers to mobility between the EU and the UK have had the most significant impact on young people, including workers and early-career professionals, as well as students across different educational levels. This was echoed by the European Parliament’s CULT Committee who recently published a report which further highlighted youth mobility issues in its analysis of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Given that post-Brexit mobility changes have had a disproportionate impact on EU and UK youth, the EESC aims to explore ways of facilitating EU-UK youth relations, including a possible reciprocal youth mobility scheme with the UK, and make proposals to the other EU institutions.
The EESC is also keen to lobby the other institutions to ensure enhanced EU-UK engagement on issues of shared importance such as environmental protection, peace and security issues and cultural activities, and also by involving young people from both sides of the Channel in addressing these important issues. The EESC also intends to reach out to and engage with vulnerable groups of young people to try to address their particular concerns.
Given these aims, the EESC has embarked on preparing an opinion on EU-UK Youth Engagement, which will aim to contribute to improving EU-UK youth engagement and mobility. As a consultative body made up of civil society representatives expressing the views of its members in opinions, the EESC will address this opinion to the Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament. The opinion would potentially contribute to improving EU-UK relations, given that youth engagement is a topic of mutual interest and has the potential to catalyse further cooperation between the EU and the UK in other areas. As part of this work, the EESC will collect feedback from UK youth sector representatives, as well as from EU youth representatives. The first step was made in September, with representatives of various EU and UK youth organisations, including the British Youth Council and the European Youth Forum, in attendance.
This preliminary meeting proved illuminating. Youth stakeholders detailed the impact Brexit has had on their abilities to function as an organisation, plan international exchanges and – above all – secure the necessary funding. Multiple organisations, including the British Youth Council, said that because of the absence of Erasmus+ funding and the shortcomings of the Turing Scheme (which unlike Erasmus + excludes non-formal educational mobility that enables young people to acquire essential skills that contribute to their development and improve their employment prospects) – they have had to cut staff numbers and significantly limit their international activities.
The committee also heard evidence from EU youth representatives who lamented the loss of their British counterparts from exchange activities and funded coordination. Again, Erasmus+ was top of mind. Also mentioned was the loss of British participation in programmes like the European Solidarity Corps – a scheme where young Brits were among the most active participants in addition to having the highest participation rates among all programme countries of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
There were also calls for Erasmus+ at a recent Youth Gathering organised by the EU’s Delegation to the UK. Importantly, all data collected so far indicates that this is as much a desire in the UK as it is in the EU.
That said, while Erasmus+ may indeed be important – and with it, schemes like the European Solidarity Corps – the EESC is focused on exploring new solutions, too. As stressed by youth representatives from all four territories in the UK, it is important to develop new tools of UK-EU youth engagement that strengthen bilateral relations in a way that aligns with the uniqueness of the relationship.
The defining feature of the EU Youth Strategy is one underpinned by the motto ‘Engage, Connect, Empower’. This motto resonates with the EESC’s aim of amplifying the voice of EU and UK youth to ensure a deepened relationship. Looking ahead, this is what the EESC will strive to do over the coming months, whether that be speaking to young people and officials in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, England or Brussels.