Home » Youth mobility impasse reveals UK’s divide and rule tactics

Youth mobility impasse reveals UK’s divide and rule tactics


University World News has reported on the swift and negative response of both the United Kingdom Labour Party, which sees itself as the government in waiting, and the ruling Conservative Party to the latest ideas of the European Commission on a mobility plan to enable UK and EU citizens in the 18-30 age group to move around the European Union and the UK for study, work and general talent development for up to four years.

The ideas come in the form of a recommendation to the council, sitting as the sector’s ministers, and an explanatory memorandum which would allow the commission to start negotiations with the UK on such a scheme.

The fact that the commission move was seen by the UK as restoring free movement by the back door plays to the fact that in the UK immigration is seen as politically sensitive while youth questions are off the agenda.

This stand-off also exemplifies how higher education has been caught up in bouts of mutual suspicion between the UK and the EU. This is the third time the EU and the UK have been at odds over higher education-related policies since Brexit.


Back in 2019, during the EU-UK Brexit negotiations, the negotiators for both sides had come up with a funded draft deal for the UK’s association with the Erasmus+ programme. Stefaan De Rynck, one of the EU’s negotiating team, tells the story in his book Inside the Deal of how Boris Johnson took Erasmus out of the deal almost in the final days.

Days later the UK produced plans for the Turing scheme for outward study mobility only, a much cheaper option for the UK because it was not obliged to host EU students in the programme for free.

Whatever the circumstances, government muddle or an ad hoc, it did not put the UK in a good light. More substantively, the restrictive Turing scheme was a loss of opportunity for the young. It is still not meeting its target numbers.

Then in October 2021 came the Horizon affair. The EU was retaliating for Johnson breaking international law. That was the EU’s price for Johnson, having signed the Withdrawal Agreement, doing a side deal on the contentious question of Northern Ireland.

UK higher education and research paid the price of a two-and-a-half-year exclusion from the Horizon programme, blocked by the EU until a solution emerged in February 2023 which was signed off by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Even so, it took another six months for the UK and the commission to agree the precise terms for UK re-entry.

Mutual suspicion

Youth mobility can be seen as fitting into this pattern of mutual suspicion at the highest political levels.

The UK has roused EU ire for trying to get bilateral deals on study mobility with France and Spain and other old allies. Notably, they have not approached the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the source in the UK popular mind of unrestrained immigration after they joined the EU.

There are historic as well as legislative reasons for the EU regarding youth mobility as an EU issue rather than one for individual member states. Having been forged in the name of unity after the Second World War, the principle of non-discrimination between citizens is fundamental to the EU.

Divide and rule

The European Commission also argues in the explanatory memorandum, which accompanies the request to the council, that an EU approach to youth mobility would provide better opportunities for the 18- to 30-year-olds who are being targeted. The implied meaning is that the visa arrangements the UK currently operates are a hotchpotch.

The EU also claims, which might later become politically relevant, that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which sets the framework for UK-EU relations and which is due for tweaking next year already has some helpful precedents on a youth mobility plan, notably concerning the social security provisions which need to accompany mobility across different states.

From an EU point of view, the UK is up to its old tricks of divide and rule on the European continent. The UK cannot deny it: Johnson, David Davis and others are being quoted in the various Brexit memoirs to that effect. On the other hand, UK governments can boast the UK’s status as a sovereign state.

One thing is sure. What worked for Britain in India and when it was an imperial power does not show signs of working today. And once more the education policy sector is on the sidelines.

Dr Anne Corbett is senior associate at LSE Consulting, London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom. Her 2005 book ‘Universities and the Europe of Knowledge’ (Palgrave Macmillan) has a detailed account of how the Erasmus decision was developed and agreed. She was awarded the Political Studies Association’s Carole Pateman Prize 2024.