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Member of the European Commission for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth
Investment in education and training must continue
University of Maastricht
Maastricht, 6 February 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very honoured to be with you, here in the beautiful city of Maastricht, and I thank you for your invitation.
I could hardly imagine a more symbolic time and place to think about the European Union and the challenges we face. Over the last 20 years, Maastricht has come to symbolise a momentous leap forward in the history of our Union: the creation of a common currency.
In recent years, the euro has often dominated the debate about the future of the European Union and the institutions we need – the institutions to ensure that our great project remains democratic and legitimate in the eyes of our people.
That we should have devoted such energy to our currency during a global financial crisis is hardly surprising. At the darkest moments, we were seemingly faced with a life-or-death struggle – not only for the euro but perhaps for the European Union as a whole.
And yet, as we search for a new narrative – a new story that can explain why the Union's members need each other more than ever before – we all can sense that our common destiny is about much more than a currency and the economic integration it demands. Our starting point, surely, must be Europe's place in the world. What does it mean to be European in 2014, and how do we see our role in the world?
If Maastricht is a special place from which to ponder such questions, then 2014 is most certainly a moment that is rich in historical symbolism.
This is a year where Europe has a duty – a duty to itself and to the rest of the world – to think deeply about the tragic events that took place exactly one hundred years ago. As Europeans today, we must ask ourselves whether we have learned all the lessons of 1914 – the outbreak of a war that cost more than ten million lives, and planted the deadly seed for many more conflicts in the century that followed.
Historians have argued about the causes of the First World War ever since it ended, and that debate continues today. I find it encouraging that, for some weeks now, the bestselling non-fiction book in Germany is a detailed account of the causes of the war, written by an Australian historian who lectures in England. People want to understand, people want to remember, and I see this as a heartening measure of vitality in our public life.
Tonight is not the time to go into that debate. But to launch our discussion here this evening, I do want to share one important idea with you.
1914 saw the failure of Europe's elites. Our leaders lacked the imagination to see that war was coming. They lacked the imagination to see that it would cost so many lives. They were incapable of breaking free from their nationalist attitudes. They were unable to build trust among their peoples. They were unable to meet together to resolve their differences.
In other words, it was the absence of Europe – the Europe that today we take for granted – that helped to produce one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of mankind. It was the absence of common institutions and the absence of a common political culture that confined Europe's leaders to their narrow, national concerns.
One hundred years later, this tragedy has lost none of its power to shock and to shame. We have no greater duty than to ensure that it never happens again.
This brings me back to 2014 and the questions facing the European Union. And it brings me to the vital role of education.
I believe passionately that education can help us to choose and shape the society we want to live in. If our world today appears more divided than ever, and if modern life brings with it so many competing pressures, then education is surely one of the places where we can rediscover our humanity, our values and a sense of meaning.
But Europe faces a number of urgent challenges, and the European Union stands ready to help its Member States and their education systems as they adapt to a fast-changing world.
One of the most difficult problems we face is the so-called mismatch between what young people are learning in school and university and what the world of work demands. This is one of the reasons why youth unemployment has reached unacceptable levels in many of our countries.
Today, one in three employers cannot find people with the right skills to fill job vacancies. Two million jobs across the EU are waiting for the right profile.
This is a complex problem with no easy answers, and it will take time before we see real progress. But we have brought this question to the very centre of the debate on education, and the European Union is working closely with its Member States to find solutions.
Above all, we need to reform our education systems so that they give pupils and students the right mix of skills for a world that is increasingly mobile, multicultural and fast-moving. We want to give young people the tools that will allow them to find their own path to happiness, fulfilment and a place in society.
A crucial part of the response is how we reform our systems of vocational education and training – an urgent task that many of our Member States have now started to undertake. The rewards for success are clear: those countries with strong vocational systems often enjoy lower levels of youth unemployment.
This is why we want to fund new alliances between training providers and businesses to modernise vocational teaching – and boost the quality and quantity of apprenticeships across Europe.
For the same reasons, we want to bring universities and businesses closer together, so that they can modernise curricula and teaching methods. Education must remain independent and free-thinking, but this should not prevent universities from opening up to the communities around them. On the contrary, this is where their future lies – and increasingly they need to open up to the world.
Today we see a global race for the best talent in higher education: the best teachers, the best courses and the best students. Of course, this is a race that Europe wants to win – our economic prosperity depends on it. But we must also ensure that we respect our fundamental values when we compete.
This means that our duty to ensure fair and open access, and to support the underprivileged student, remains as important as ever. We want to make sure that this is a race to the top – not the bottom – and that every young person has a fair chance to succeed, whatever his or her background.
Erasmus+ is the European Union's response to these challenges – and much more beyond. Tonight, I am very proud to offer you a brief introduction to our new programme, and I hope you are as excited as I am about the new opportunities it represents.
Erasmus+ is the new EU programme for education, training and youth. It will give four million people the opportunity to study, train, work and volunteer in a new country.
With a budget of almost 15 billion euros – an increase of 40 per cent compared to today – Erasmus+ offers hope to young people across Europe and to the people and institutions that prepare them for life.
Over the past four years I have strived to put education and training at the heart of the European Union's plans for growth and jobs. It is our human capital – the knowledge, skills and creativity of our people – that will deliver the intelligent, sustainable and inclusive growth that we all want to see. Erasmus+ turns that vision into reality.
Today, education sits at the centre of EU policy-making. Every year, when we work with our Member States to identify the priorities for reform, the Commission encourages all governments to modernise and invest in their education systems.
Our message is clear: investment in education and training must continue even as we consolidate our public finances.
Learning mobility remains at the heart of the new programme – as it should. Studying abroad, young people develop many of the skills that will serve them for the rest of their life. They learn to stand on their own two feet. They learn to live and work with people from another culture. They learn a new language and a different way of thinking. They see the world through the eyes of someone else. They open their minds.
If you have not already enjoyed the Erasmus adventure, I hope you will have the opportunity some time in the future. One of the innovations of the new programme is a loan guarantee, which will help Masters students to spend time in another country. As you can see, Erasmus+ covers more and more parts of the education system.
As we prepare for elections to the European Parliament, our newspapers tell us that this will be a good time for the political parties who reject the European Union and the values it represents. We are promised a further wave of cynicism, populism and xenophobia.
Well, let me tell you: Europe is better than this. And you – our young generation – you deserve better than this.
Let us work instead for a Europe that learns to live together. A Europe that is prepared for a mobile and multicultural world. A Europe that sees diversity not as a threat but as
a strength. A Europe that is open among its neighbours and open to the world.
This is my vision for Erasmus+ and this is my vision for Europe's youth.