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Erasmus and the European Identity

“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than in miles”- Tim Cahill

Before leaving for Erasmus I had this crazy irrational fear that I would make no friends. Zero. Absolutely nada. I had it all planned out in my head as well. I’d arrive and politely converse with people during forced socialising at orientation and then I would spend the rest of the four months under the covers in my bed facetiming my boyfriend and wishing I was at home. I was so convinced that I wasn’t going to make any friends that along with packing an ungodly amount of books, I also packed little presents for myself to open so I could cheer myself up when the lack of friends got just a bit too much. I had thought this out. I partly justified the conclusion of making no friends with this idea that I couldn’t possibly get on with “Europeans.” “The culture on the continent is just too different” I whined to just about anyone who would listen to my mad theory, “they’re not going to like me.” “We’re just too different.”

 

I couldn’t have been more wrong…

I’ve had just over a month now to marinate in my thoughts about living in the Netherlands and what the Erasmus+ programme has and is yet to offer me. While reflecting, as cliched as it is, I’ve come to conclude that the best thing Erasmus has given me, is my amazing set of new friends. I’ve made the best friends from all corners of the globe and in the past month, as well as growing remarkably close with each other, we’ve also grown a lot as people. I feel more “adult” than ever. I’ve bought a clothes horse, learned how to cook Greek and French dishes, learned about and tasted countless wines and cheeses and have racked up over 100km cycling around this beautiful Dutch town. I’ve been thinking about what Erasmus is, what it means to me and how best to express these thoughts.

 

The Erasmus programme is the European Commission’s hugely successful and popular study abroad scheme. It all started with the simple idea of an Italian professor and politician, Sofia Corradi, who spent over 20 years campaigning for a European-wide university exchange programme. Corradi herself had been on an exchange to Columbia University in the US, after which the University of Rome refused to recognise her degree. The programme was officially launched in 1987 when it sent 3,224 students abroad, to and from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. Since 1987, the Erasmus initiative has changed the lives of more than 10 million participants. Not only is the programme a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students but it concretely contributes to the recognition of a European identity within each of the participants. Erasmus has reminded us that not only are we Irish, Greek, Croatian or French but we are also all European and those two identities live in harmony. Before embarking on my Erasmus journey, I never really gave any substantial thought to my identity, neither as an Irish nor European person. I was just me. Erasmus has given me the space to think not just about what it means to be Irish but what it means to be European too.

 

We form an identity when we feel a sense of belonging to a certain group or community. Ireland being an island, I know that at times it feels as though we are somewhat removed from Europe and as a result do not have the same share in a European identity as say someone from France or Luxembourg. Our norms in Ireland are more British than we care to admit. We grew up watching British TV and movies, following British football clubs, reading Tracey Beaker and Harry Potter and idolising British celebs. This has served to dilute our European-ness. Potentially giving us less of an interest in European affairs than our continental counterparts. But Erasmus has shown me that we can participate in a European identity in much the same way as those on the continent because we have more in common than first meets the eye.

 

I appreciate that from an outside perspective, it would seem as though there are little to no commonalities between Member States. With 512 million people, 24 different languages and a whole host of complex histories and cultures-it seems impossible that we could uncover any common ground. And is there even such a thing as a European identity? Can we develop a sense of belonging towards what critics define merely as an economic free market zone?

 

Such critics seem to forget how the EU came about.

The EEC as it then was, was birthed from a need to peacefully negotiate our differences out of solidarity and mutual respect. Such a venture seems, to me at least, to imply a sense of belonging. A common identity is rooted in shared values, shared experiences and shared objectives.  The Union is founded on a joint set of values as set down within the treaties. All Member States are expected to put freedom, tolerance, non-discrimination, pluralism and equality between men and women on the forefront of their national agendas. In this way, making friends on Erasmus is easy when the base-values of your countries are all the same. The importance of non-discrimination and equality have been enshrined in us by our European roots, it makes us accepting of each other, no matter our differences. While the values set out in the treaties are legal and somewhat non-human, they form the basis of the values we share with those we are on Erasmus with. But what really connects us as Europeans extends beyond the confines of what’s been set out for us in the treaties. Our true values transcend law and reason. They’re human and natural. We all want to learn, to love, to build careers, to settle down, to have kids and give them the same opportunities that we had as well.

 

In my group, we share anecdotes of our upbringings over salads and sandwiches in the canteen every day. Some things seem almost universal: grandmothers will try to fatten you up every chance they get, your parents may not like your significant other (and may inadvertently try to poison them!), everyone’s worked for minimum wage in a job they don’t even like, stayed up all night to finish an assignment, had their first kiss and first heartbreak. These are the things we bond over. They’ve brought us closer together.

 

I mean, of course we have our differences too. It’s what keeps things interesting. Night-time brings sangria-driven arguments over whose country has the best food or health care system. My friends won’t stop calling me a leprechaun although I’ve told them countless times that leprechauns are more of an American myth than an Irish one. I deeply distress them when I announce my height in feet and inches rather than centimetres (they can have that one though, I don’t even know why we do that.)

 

Erasmus has also reminded me of the countless perks of being a European and an EU citizen. The right to live, travel and work anywhere in the EU means there are endless possibilities for me once I graduate with my law degree. Erasmus is a place where this absence of limits is so clearly felt. We feel as though we can do anything we set our minds to. Travelling to Berlin one weekend and Prague the next. Europe is ours to explore, it’s just for us to decide what we’re going to wear when we snap those all-important Instagram pictures.  I never thought the freedoms Europe offered even really applied to me. But they can be seen in action in even the most mundane of places. You go to any supermarket and there will be Spanish ham alongside Irish milk and butter and authentic Italian pasta. At home I never fully understood the significance of this: how the founding fathers of the EU fought hard for our right to eat French cheese with Bulgarian wine by the canals of Amsterdam , to live and work in Germany if our heart desires only to one day change our mind and up sticks to Greece instead. Europe is a gateway to endless opportunities and Erasmus is the ultimate taster of this.

 

We live in very uncertain times. I myself am unsure of what is going to happen day to day, for the moment I’m returning home to Ireland. But as we navigate these unchartered waters I rest-assured in the knowledge I have made 7 amazing friends for life and uncovered a newfound appreciation for my European heritage, that just wasn’t there before. I love Europe and I love Leiden. These cobble streets and pretty canals have quickly become home and in as much as they’ll stay with me, I leave a part of me with them as well. I think on Erasmus, we don’t just cross physical borders but mental ones too and I am beyond grateful for my attitude overhaul and my new little European family.