A kick-off conference in Brussels on 12 June 2015 marked the official launching of the Erasmus+ Student and Alumni Association (ESAA) by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education and Culture (DG EAC). ESAA brings together all exchange students and alumni funded by the European Union, as represented by four organisations: The Erasmus Student Network (ESN), OCEANS, the Erasmus Mundus Student and Alumni Association (EMA) and garagErasmus. Funded by the European Commission, the umbrella organisation aims to increase the visibility and impact of Erasmus+, as well as to provide a networking platform for alumni. Whether or not ESAA will truly represent 3 million Erasmus+ students in the period up to 2020 is, however, a matter for debate. The European Students Union in particular has been very critical of the way ESAA has been set up, questioning among other things the (over-) involvement of the Commission in the project.
With ESN representing current Erasmus students, OCEANS and EMA functioning as student and alumni networks for different programmes, and garagErasmus seeking to connect Erasmus+ alumni to professional opportunities, the four founding organisations are quite diverse in their aims and structure. This very diversity became a point of contention during the conference, as representatives of the associations struggled to clarify how they would reach common agreements while maintaining their integrity and independence. It was apparent that there are still many questions to be solved regarding the way members will cooperate. Nonetheless, the conference as a whole was marked by enthusiasm and optimism regarding the possibilities that such an extensive student and alumni network might open up.
The fact that ESAA is not an independent student-led organisation, but one impulse and financially supported by DG EAC, is likely to keep firing the debate. ESU has put forth a number of questions touching upon several contentious issues, including: The procedure for inclusion or exclusion of member organisations; the fact that funding for ESAA goes through a service provider; and the influence DG EAC will have on the policy of ESAA. The umbrella organisation is already under its first downpour, but that was to be expected. The contentious “unity in diversity” of ESAA is not the first challenge of its kind under the EU stars.