Peter Sutherland, father of Erasmus, passes away

by michael rogers

ERASMUS is the most recognised student mobility programme in the world. Erasmus+ is the EU's programme to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe. Its budget of €14.7 billion will provide opportunities for over 4 million Europeans to study, train, gain experience, and volunteer abroad. Its founder, Peter Sutherland, died yesterday aged 71. Peter Sutherland has had a varied career, including roles as Attorney General of the Irish government, Founding Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, EU Commissioner, UN Special Representative for International Migration, and Chairman of various Multi National Corporations, including BP and Goldman Sachs.

As UN Special Representative for International Migration, he plays a vital role in formulating policy in light of the recent refugee crisis. Most importantly for students however, he also founded an education initiative three decades ago that would become known as the Erasmus Exchange Programme.

Sutherland became European Commissioner for education for just one year in 1985. It was in this year that he proposed the Erasmus programme. Getting the project off the ground, however, was initially quite difficult. At the time the EEC was still seen very much as solely an economic and not a political union, and many were unwilling to include education in its remit. “A number of Member States were particularly sensitive and even opposed to any further encroachment on national educational activities at community level and the lack of clarity around the training/education issue was anticipated to be likely to be used to block progress.” The plan was to argue that university education counted as “training”, which, being geared towards employment, was covered in the treaties.

The task of building popular support for the proposals began. Sutherland decided to launch the initiative at the conference of EGEE (Etats Generaux des Etudiants Européens) in Paris. It was in the main amphitheatre of the Sorbonne where Erasmus was first unveiled to a student body. “The Erasmus proposals received a great reception there from hundreds of students.” But while support amongst students was strong, there were still opponents in the European Community. “I had a number of occasionally turbulent meetings with the Council of Ministers regarding the proposed programme” he said, “before it was ultimately adopted in June 1987 by simple majority.”

Even there, the opposition did not stop. “This method of voting the Erasmus programme through was contested by a minority of Member States.” These states were still opposed to community interventions in education policy. The issue was brought before the European Court of Justice, which ruled in favour of Sutherland, allowing the majority decision to be upheld. “The result”, he says “is the Erasmus Programme.”

Since then the Erasmus Programme has gone from strength to strength, with 200,000 students going on exchange every year from more than 2,000 educational institutions. Sutherland is clear that the ultimate goal wasn’t merely education. It was to use the programme as a tool to further the wider project of European integration. “The ultimate objective was the process of integration between Europeans rather than the purely educational advantages that it would give. The reality is that we needed to create a new attitude to the EU which we still need to do today” he said. “This requires young people to recognise a common cultural and value based system the European countries share; and not to feel alien and different from others.

Peter Denis Sutherland (25 April 1946 – 7 January 2018) was also an Irish international businessman and former Attorney General of Ireland, associated with the Fine Gael party. He was a barrister by profession and was a Senior Counsel of the Irish Bar. He was known for serving in a variety of international organisations, political and business roles. (wikipedia)

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