Gavin Pelan, Marina Vidal, Patrycja Skalska, Hakan Ilikçi, Nathan Lusseau

In Ghent, a Flemish town marked by its rich mediaeval history,  the commitment of the youth for international mobility continues to blossom. Back in 1989, the city witnessed the birth of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) when, only two years after the European Commission set up the successful Erasmus programme, 32 former Erasmus students gathered there to evaluate their mobility and identify areas for improvement. Today, ESN is one of the largest youth networks in Europe, acting for young people in more than 500 local associations in 45 different countries.

Continuing its mission around civic engagement and youth, ESN has recently joined forces with the European Youth Forum within the MEET (Mobilising Europe = Engaging Together) project . As part of this initiative, "Democracy Festivals" have been organised since the end of 2023 to enable all citizens to exchange and share ideas around active participation

On February 12th, ESN gathered a wide range of stakeholders including representatives of universities, youth associations, students, members of European institutions and civil society for the Ghent-based conference “Mobilising Europe, Engaging together”. Once again, the city where it all started 35 years ago, welcomed  relevant discussions around mobility and civic engagement.

The event started with a speech by Sara Tagliabracci, Global Mobility Coordinator for ESN, focusing on the importance of 2024 and the European elections. Frederik De Decker, head of the international relations office at Ghent University, highlighted the relevance of volunteer work and the role it plays in increasing students’ engagement and skill acquisition.

For 2024, Ghent earned the titles of Erasmus Destination of the Year and European Youth Capital by focusing on youth development and making students a priority. Céline de Coninck, Project Lead for the European Youth Capital Ghent 2024 outlined planned actions, including a wide range of festivities, public debates during the European elections, and smaller projects, that will take place during the year. 

As the conference approached its equator, the President of ESN, Rita Dias, presented the fifteenth edition of the ESNsurvey. Her presentation revealed challenges faced by respondents, such as grant payment timing and academic performance drops upon returning from mobility. A relevant finding of the survey, linked to this year’s elections, was the underscored correlation between international mobility and the active participation of youth.

The next panel, moderated by Daphné Scherer, Administrator at the European Parliament, responsible for Youth Affairs within the Cult Committee, focused on active citizenship. All panellists presented their views on young people's participation in civic life, adding value to the discussion. Giorgos Papaioannou, Liaison Officer for Youth Affairs at ESN, presented one of their projects "Erasmus Generation in Action'' and its role in this year’s European elections. Martin Bogdan, Policy and Project Coordinator at the Academic Cooperation Association, called for an improvement through multi-sectoral cooperation on this subject and the recognition of skills acquired through civic engagement. Xesc Mainzer Cardell, Vice-President of JEF Europe, stressed the importance of interventions in schools, so that young people can better understand European issues and thus become more involved. And, lastly, Horia Onita, President of the European Students’ Union, stressed the need to encourage young people not to vote out of dissatisfaction but rather out of hope.

This was followed by a speech and interactive session by Rareș Voicu, board member of the European Youth Forum, where he pushed young people to realise their collective power during the upcoming European elections. Then, Sabri Ben Rommane, Communication Officer for ESN, presented network initiatives like the "Mov'In Europe Guidelines" and the “Voting abroad tool”, a platform providing information on voting abroad, enhancing knowledge in the democratic process.

Young people’s empowerment and access to information is closely related to their freedom to travel and talk to people from different countries and perspectives. And while air travel is currently the preferred means of transport due to its cheaper prices, more and more young people are looking for more sustainable ways to travel. With this in mind, Ayberk Yavuz, Treasurer of ESN, presented ESN's collaboration with Eurail, the company most known for its famous 'Interrail Pass'. The collaboration between the two, will soon enable Erasmus students to travel more sustainably and affordably.

The following presentation, by Michael Teutsch, provided an opportunity to assess the impact of the Erasmus programme on beneficiaries. In his speech, the Head of Unit B4, Erasmus + coordination at the DG EAC of the European Commission, presented the results of the mid-term evaluation of the current programme, with an eye set on building the programme’s next edition (2028-2034). The results presented by the speaker show that,while there’s still room for improvements; particularly in terms of simplifying the participation process, inclusion and increasing the overall budget,  Erasmus+   has had a real impact and is consistent with its strategic priorities.  

This led into the Conference’s final discussion about improvements to the programme. Johannes Gehringer, Policy Officer European Commission, DG EAC Higher Education Unit, emphasised the need for active participation on mobility and the full recognition of learning abroad. Catarina Moleiro, Policy and Communication Officer in the Coimbra Group, stressed the need to build the future of the programme on the shared values of Europeans, while hoping for an administrative simplification for higher education institutions. Gijs Coucke, Secretary General of ENLIGHT, praised these European alliances as reducing barriers to the internationalisation of education and wished for an even greater impact on mobility beneficiaries. Katrina Sproge, Policy and Research Officer at the European University Foundation, added that the future of Erasmus lies in its ability to collect key figures to make it more qualitative and impactful. Lastly, the President of ESN Türkiye, Gökay Bagriyanik, stressed the need to make the programme more inclusive, in particular through grants, but also by simplifying the visa issues for non-EU beneficiaries.

To conclude the conference, Wim Gabriels, Director of the Erasmus Student Network, gave a closing speech in which he expressed the network’s commitment to improving the Erasmus programme through a series of consultations that will culminate in a report expected to come out in Autumn 2024.

Overall, the conference showed how, even 35 years after the creation of ESN, the proactive stance of young people is still influencing Europe’s future, driven by the Erasmus+ programme and the dynamic Erasmus Generation advocating for its continued development.