Imagine a space where, every year, tens of thousands of Europeans meet, get to know each other and learn how to live in a country that is not their own. Imagine a means to transcend borders, to forget the technocracy and to experience Europe in a concrete and non-politicised way. This space and these means exist because of universities and the Erasmus programme,which, we just learned this week, is threatened with a "cessation of payments".

All is not lost for the students. Their grants have been paid for the beginning of the academic year. And Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski has pledged to hammer out an agreement with member states to make up for the funding shortfall. But this situation is likely to recur next year because austerity is the order of the day for the EU budget just as it is for the member states which finance it. It’s therefore urgent to rally to the defence of Erasmus.

It is true that epithets such as “Europe’s most efficient dating agency” and its portrayal in the film The Spanish Apartment, which narrates the adventures of a group of twenty-somethings in Barcelona, have meant that the student exchange programme is often viewed as slightly frivolous, and this may have encouraged Europe’s moneymen to look on it as something of a gimmick. However, through such individual experiences, Erasmus has created “the first generation of young Europeans”, as Umberto Eco has so aptly described it. For this alone, it should be considered a political priority.

We should also bear in mind that Erasmus, which is an acronym for European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, aims to develop two crucial assets for the future of Europe.

The first of these is mobility in an EU where languages and national roots hinder the construction of a common economic, social and civic space on the scale of the United States, for example. The second is the exchange of knowledge, which is indispensable if we want to innovate, remain competitive, and persuade researchers and inventors to stay in Europe. Europe is already struggling to maintain its position in the globalised economy, and it would be unwise to deprive it of such a tool.

Of course, Erasmus is more than a complicated acronym. It is also the name of one of the most important thinkers of the Renaissance. A great traveler, Erasmus of Rotterdam remains a symbol of the will for unity that has been weakened by the current crisis. The author of In Praise of Follysymbolises a Europe which from its long-standing values created new ones, and has drawn sustenance from the political and cultural dialogue between the countries of the North and the South to create a new modernity. In 2010-2011, the Erasmus programme cost 460 million euros. A small budgetary extravagance which, in its quest for recognition, Europe could well allow itself.