A tribute to two founding fathers of the EU’s Erasmus programme

The successive deaths in recent weeks of Manuel Marin and now Peter Sutherland, former European Commissioners, sadly coincide with the close of the year-long celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the EU’s Erasmus programme. Both men played crucial roles in the negotiations which led to the adoption and launching in 1987/8 of Erasmus and Comett, the two flagship programmes of the EU to promote interchange between universities throughout Europe.

In 1985, Peter Sutherland was given responsibility for education in his portfolio at the Commission in addition to his primary responsibility for EU competition policy. This was a one year assignment to him by the Delors Commission. Spain and Portugal were due to arrive as new member states the following year, when Manuel Marin would take over the portfolio for education and youth policy.

In 1985, political negotiations in the Council of Ministers on the educational initiatives were hampered by the controversy surrounding arguments about the legal basis in the Treaty to permit the adoption and financing of educational action at EU level. France, Germany and the UK had raised objections to the Commission proposals, based on the training article in the founding Treaty of Rome. The Commission’s proposals had received on the other hand widespread support from universities and students across Europe, following 10 years of experimentation with the promotion of cooperation between universities, particularly in the field of reciprocal credit transfers for students.

Peter Sutherland and Manuel Marin had to fight hard to argue the political and legal case for adoption of the two programmes. They both did so with great passion and commitment, leading with huge resolve the Commission team in which I was privileged to participate. I recall vividly how Peter’s clever positioning and powerful presence in these debates frequently reminded me of his earlier incarnation as a rugby prop forward. The enthusiastic popular response to the iconic Erasmus programme undoubtedly led later to the EU’s decision to anchor education in the revised Treaty at Maastricht and thus permit the EU to finance the ambitious programme we now know.

The championing of these education initiatives by Peter Sutherland and then Manuel Marin in the Commission coincided with the decision to set the 1992 target date for the launch of the EU’s internal market, with its four freedoms of movement, especially of persons, at its heart. The overall political leadership and determination of President Jacques Delors during that period was a vital factor, most especially through his influential presence and support at the London EU summit.

As I look back, I have little doubt that without the tough stance of Peter Sutherland in 1985, and his political and legal grasp and conviction, followed in 1986 by Manuel Marin’s equally passionate engagement and determination, we would not now be celebrating the great EU success story of Erasmus. By 2020 this programme will have involved over 9 million of students, apprentices, young people and academic staffs, and now involves cooperation across the globe.

This success story has been and continues to be a triumph of teamwork, led in the decisive breakthrough period of the 1980s by Peter Sutherland and Manuel Marin. Their sad loss provides an opportunity to recognise their vital founding role and the contribution they both made to promoting the active participation of young people in building a European Union of partnerships and grassroots cooperation. These partnerships and this cooperation are a striking and moving expression of the shared values which so enrich our European continent.


Hywel Ceri Jones
Director of Commission’s Directorate for Education, Training and Youth Policy (1973-1993)

January 2018