Europe is seeing a rise in cross-border couples in part thanks to educational exchange programs like Europe's Erasmus, which is 25 years old this summer. Could it help European solidarity too?
When former exchange students meet up after a long absence in the movie "Russian Dolls," they celebrate the marriage of a British friend to a Russian ballet dancer. As they exchange tales of their respective journeys since their last meeting, friendships are revisited and romance flourishes.
The movie was filmed seven years ago. But a recent study by Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical office, shows that the storyline was not just the stuff of dreams. More Europeans are marrying across national borders – a trend reflecting a step toward an ideal of greater integration, even amid growing uncertainty about the region's future.
The data are still small – only 4 percent of the total population of marriageable age is married to a foreigner – and are not clear cut: marriages between nationals of foreign descent and a partner from back home are not filtered out, as an Economist analysis noted, while unmarried unions are not included. But the phenomenon is widely viewed as an important indicator of social integration.
Vincent Bourgeais, media support officer at Eurostat, commented that mixed marriages are potential factors of social and cultural change. “Persons in mixed marriages … cross boundaries between groups, and their descendants are less likely to identify with a single group,” the study notes.
An important step toward social integration was Europe's unification of the higher education system – introducing bachelor's, master's, and doctorate qualifications across universities to make degrees more comparable and competitive. The move, consolidated in the Bologna Accords in 1999, was meant to facilitate cross-boundary study and increase mobility across Europe.
Erasmus, the EU’s educational exchange program, has long been offering students this opportunity – and paved the way for the Bologna process. Named after a leading Renaissance humanist of the 15th century, the program allows students to spend one of two semesters at a university abroad and celebrated its 25th anniversary this summer. The lead characters featured in "Russian Dolls" were all Erasmus alumni.
The exchange experience is often rewarding in more ways than one. Students pick up a foreign language, appreciate a different culture, and forge ties with fellow Europeans for a lifetime. First established in 1987, its creators hoped to break down some of the barriers – language barriers, cultural differences, and professional hurdles that exist between member states.