The European Commission estimates that over one million babies have been born as a result of the Erasmus programme. This statistic may warm the hearts of the romantics and surprise the cynics. However, it is an undeniable fact that Erasmus has given rise to a generation known as Erasmus Babies.
This statistic becomes less surprising when we consider that one in five students who participate in Erasmus meet their partner during their time abroad. The European Commission has confirmed that over three million students have participated in the programme, making it likely that over 600,000 of them have found love while on Erasmus.
“I call it a sexual revolution: a young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl – they fall in love, they get married and they become European, as do their children”, Umberto Eco, an Italian philosopher and novelist, told the Guardian. “The university exchange programme Erasmus is barely mentioned in the business sections of newspapers, yet Erasmus has created the first generation of young Europeans”, he explained.
Indeed, Erasmus Babies do appear to have a strong sense of European identity. Lily Lee, an MPhil in Identities and Cultures of Europe graduate who completed her thesis on Erasmus Babies and their sense of European identity, explains how “what really struck me was just how aware [Erasmus Babies] were of their European identity”.
“A young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl – they fall in love, they get married and they become European, as do their children”
“So many of them were told, ‘you were brought into this world because you are an Erasmus Baby’”, Lee explains. Throughout her research, Lee spoke to several Erasmus Babies and tells me that she found the sense of European identity among them “actually quite remarkable.” She recalls how one Erasmus Baby told her that they “would not exist without Europe”.
While these children’s sense of European identity may indeed be remarkable, it is hardly accidental. Gérman Sancho – who met his wife while taking part in the programme – explains how European identity is something he is keen to discuss with his children.
Sancho’s children are Erasmus Babies. However, he explains how they are still too young to fully understand the concept of European identity. He tells me how for his eight-year-old daughter, “it is not something she is very aware of but, certainly, I will be talking to [both of my children] about that… it is starting to get (sic) into their minds but I guess it will [become] stronger and stronger in the future”.
Indeed, it appears that it is not just Erasmus Babies but also their parents who have a strong sense of European identity. Indeed, for many who met their partner while abroad, Erasmus has had a major impact on their lives. Severine McCarthy – who met her husband while studying in Scotland – explains how, “I never thought I’d meet someone there and that would mean that I’d never move back to France fully, so it was really a turning point in my life”.
“So many of them were told, ‘you were brought into this world because you are an Erasmus Baby’”
For others, such as Massimo Lucarelli – who met his wife, Claire Le Jouan, while they were both on Erasmus in Malta – it was not simply a romantic relationship that heightened his sense of European identity but also the friendships he made.
Lucarelli explains to me that one memory that sticks out in his mind was the day that he visited a World War II museum in Valletta with his friend Wayne. Like Lucarelli, Wayne too was on Erasmus in Malta. He recounts how “we saw in the museum, some Italian planes and some English weapons… talking to Wayne we realised that during the Second World War, my grandfather was in Libya, with the Italian Army, in 1940/1941, and he was fighting against British troops, [while] Wayne’s grandfather was in Libya as well in the same period and he was fighting against the Italian troops”.
Lucarelli tells me how he and Wayne found themselves “laughing at this strange thing”. “I think that this moment was very important for me and also for Wayne because we realised… thanks to Erasmus, we were friends. We were having fun together, playing football, drinking beer, studying sometimes. Instead, of (sic) our grandfathers fought, one against the other”, says Lucarelli.
Unsurprisingly, Lucarelli says that he would prefer his children to feel “European” rather than French or Italian. However, for Claire Le Jouan, Lucarelli’s wife, European identity is a more complex issue. “I’m not sure that it exists now”, Le Jouan explains.
She describes how, for her, “European identity is to be a citizen. Maybe [it is] not something cultural but it is a political fact”. Lucarelli agrees, “I think that generally, identity is always something you have to keep on building. So probably new generations, new European generations, have to become Europeans. You can’t [be] born a European citizen but you have to become a European citizen and Erasmus is one of the things that can [help you] realise this”.
Unsurprisingly, Lucarelli says that he would prefer his children to feel “European” rather than French or Italian. However, for Claire Le Jouan, Lucarelli’s wife, European identity is a more complex issue.
The issue of European identity also gives rise to the question of national identity. This is particularly true for Erasmus Babies, whose parents have at least two different national identities. However, perhaps, as Le Jouan points out, we do not have “to create…a [European] cultural identity because the beautiful thing is to have different culture[s] and we will still have different languages, gastronomic habits, etc”. She explains that the idea is not to “normalise” these things but to “share” cultures and traditions.
Sancho is of a similar view: “I think we will have to keep regional traditions, culture, languages and so on but it doesn’t prevent [us] from being in Europe together… It doesn’t need to exclude one from each other. [National identity and European identity] are not exclusive.”
Thus, it would appear that being born an Erasmus Baby does not result in the loss of national identity, rather the addition of European identity. Lucarelli explains how this stands in stark contrast to the reality that his grandparent’s generation was confronted with. He tells me about stories he has heard of people moving from Italy to France “[who] had to change their first name… Giancarlo became Jean-Charles… it’s a bit violent”.
Le Jouan and Lucarelli explain how today recognising your European identity does not force you to renounce your national identity. As Le Jouan points out, part of being European – and indeed, part of being an Erasmus Baby – “is the possibility to have different identities”.