Belgium -Brussels – In 2017, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signature of the Treaty of Rome. This will be a moment to mark what we Europeans have achieved together, to appreciate the peace, stability and prosperity we have built.
But it will also be a moment to be very clear that we can take none of this for granted. That we need to reaffirm and strengthen the values we share, our openness to create mutual understanding and respect through dialogue.
Today, more than ever, we need to work hard to build a society where no one is left behind, where people wish to contribute and where they have the opportunity to do so. This requires understanding as well as living common values and having a set of social, civic and intercultural competencies. Education and other forms of learning are key to achieving this.
Since the Treaty of Rome was signed, our efforts to bring our countries and peoples together have been many. But the Erasmus programme, which will be thirty years old in 2017, is recognised as one of the most successful. It is the EU flagship initiative – one that makes it possible for people, especially young people, to experience first-hand what being European can mean.
Erasmus has flourished since its creation. What started as a mobility scheme for higher education students now provides opportunities for millions to study, train, teach or volunteer all across the continent and even beyond.
Over the past 30 years, the programme has given five million people a chance to expand their horizons by learning from and with each other. Today’s Erasmus+ programme is bigger, more open and more supportive than any of its predecessors.
We know from empirical evidence that a stay abroad boosts people’s skills. Young people return to their home countries more confident and in a better position to solve problems and adapt to different situations – the kinds of skills that 93% of employers are looking for when recruiting. By giving young people opportunities and also by supporting education, training and youth systems to become more relevant to the needs of society and the job market, Erasmus has been making a major contribution to youth employability and enabling young people to live independent, fulfilling lives.
In 2017, we will not only celebrate what Erasmus has done for the skills of individual citizens and the performance of educational institutions for 30 years. We will also – and perhaps more importantly – celebrate the role it has had in creating a European identity. An identity that does not replace, but complement and enrich our other, national, regional, local, ethnic, cultural, identities. Because all the connections and exchanges that Erasmus makes possible help us appreciate what differentiates us – and what we have in common.
Volunteering is a great example of this. Over the past 20 years, the European Voluntary Service, part of the Erasmus programme, has enabled 100,000 young people to volunteer abroad, engaging with individuals, helping communities in need. 85% of participants in the European Voluntary Service say that it has made them aware of common European values. This is the solidarity that Europe needs – especially given the big challenges we face today, the forces that tear at our social fabric and the temptation to retreat and isolate ourselves.
More than ever, we need to work together, to cherish our values and to build strong, open communities. Young people have a critical role in this. This is why I want to offer young people more opportunities to volunteer and put their sense of solidarity into practice.
With the European Solidarity Corps, which will largely build on the European Voluntary Service, I want to send a clear signal. I want to highlight our young people’s capacity to play an active role in helping to tackle the challenges we face.
Young volunteers will have the possibility to get involved in a broad range of activities, including helping to prevent – or give a long-term response to – natural disasters or providing support for people in need, such as refugees.
Our goal is to have 100 000 young people signed up by 2020, who would be deployed with local and national authorities, NGOs or businesses that are engaged in solidarity-related activities. In a safe, stimulating and empowering environment, they will gain experiences, develop their skills and competences and serve a cause which is dear to their heart. What they learn here will be valuable assets for them when applying for a job or going further in their studies.
The aim is to deploy the first European Solidarity Corps participants before summer 2017, and I am proud that EU citizens can count on Erasmus+ for this effort.
The 30th anniversary of Erasmus provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on how Europeans have enriched their lives by coming together. At the same time, this anniversary offers the occasion to take this programme to the next level: I want to strengthen Erasmus further so that it can support even more people from a wider range of backgrounds. Because I believe that this is the best way of enabling young people to build a better Europe for the future.