Would you like to receive a birthday card from the EU? Perhaps not the most exciting birthday present in the world, true… but what if the card contained a 1-month rail ticket that let you travel across Europe for free? Now that’s a bit more interesting.
This summer, the European Commission (responding to a request from the European Parliament) has forked out €12 million euros to distribute 15,000 rail passes to 18-year-olds from across Europe. With a single Interrail ticket, recipients can travel through up to 30 different European countries.
First launched in 1972, the Interrail pass was designed specifically for young European travellers. It is now used by more than 250,000 people each year (of all ages). The passes are available to citizens and official residents of EU countries (as well as some neighbouring countries) and the price is discounted for travellers aged 27 or younger.
Supporters of free tickets for young people see it as an investment. They hope to encourage mobility and a sense of common identity, with young Europeans using their tickets to travel and experience the rich culture, history, and geography of the continent. Critics, however, see it as a waste of money and (even worse) a transparent attempt to buy the support of young people.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from João, who personally feels a strong sense of European identity. João believes his “Europeanness” has been fostered by travelling and interacting with so many different people from across the continent, something he argues has been greatly helped by Interrail (alongside Erasmus and budget airlines like Ryanair). So, if all young Europeans received free 1-month Interrail tickets when they turned 18, would that encourage a stronger common identity?
To get a reaction, we spoke to Vincent-Immanuel Herr, co-founder of the #FreeInterrail initiative, which campaigns in favour of the policy. What would he say?
[…] From our own experience, we are firmly convinced that you can really expand your own horizons only when you leave your own country and your own comfort zone and get to know something new.
My colleague Martin [Speer] and I launched the Interrail initiative because we realised on our own European tour how unequal the access to Europe is. There is a large group of young people who travel a lot – maybe they can also be called the ‘Erasmus generation’. But there is also a large part of our generation who never go abroad and therefore never personally experiences Europe. This is not only a pity for them individually, but also dangerous for European unification.
The European idea is based on this beautiful saying: ‘unity in diversity’. In my opinion, to understand this diversity and really appreciate it, you need a personal experience of diversity. If we succeed in making sure that all young people in Europe travel abroad, make friends there and perceive diversity as a beautiful thing, then that is also really good for European integration. Or you might say it the other way around: if we cannot make all EU citizens play a part in this diversity, then the European idea is in great danger.
Populists in all EU member states present diversity as a danger and attack it again and again. If that did not happen, we would have far fewer problems with all these marginal political forces that want to break Europe.
To get a reaction from the European Commission, we also spoke to Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. What was his position?
Not all our readers were as enthusiastic as João. For example, we had a comment sent in from EU Reform- Proactive, who dismisses completely the idea of free Interrail tickets as a way to “buy” support for the European project. How would Vincent-Immanuel Herr respond to this charge?
Neither Martin nor I work for the EU, nor do we have much to do with them. Except that they now find our idea great. We have no relationship with the institutions except that we are enthusiastic about Europe and of course want to support the EU as an important project in Europe.
The idea for the initiative came from young people who were traveling themselves. In the beginning we were the only two people working on the project; now we have a team from many different European countries. Today, many young people join our project, saying: it’s a great idea, that’s what I’m committed to. So, it’s a civil society initiative.
On the money question: I think you have to see it the other way around. It is true that the program will be expensive if it is introduced all at once for all young people. But on the other hand, somebody needs to show me a better way to reach all future generations in Europe for the same amount of money. I think there is no better way. In that sense, it is cheap for the 500 euros it will cost per person. When you consider that the money can be a truly life-changing experience in a young person’s life. And that’s what we keep hearing from people who travel via Interrail. The experience is invariably positive, but unfortunately can only be done by a small number of people. When we mobilise an entire generation, that’s relatively little money and certainly not a waste of money.
You can also argue in a purely economic way: consider what that will trigger in terms of tourism revenues and economic recovery, especially in Southern and South-Western European countries. Therefore, the program will in the long run make even more money than is spent.
Finally, how would Commissioner Tibor Navracsics respond to the same comment? Are free Interrail tickets just a gimmicky attempt to indoctrinate young people?
Should all Europeans get free Interrail tickets on their 18th birthday? Would that help foster a stronger sense of European identity, and give young people the chance to travel and explore other cultures? Or would it be a waste of money and a cynical way of “buying” popular support? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!