24th Mar 2018


#FreeInterrail: saving Europe by travelling

  • A free train pass would tackle several deep problems at once: the rise of nationalism, lack of trust in the EU, a divided and disconnected young generation. (Photo: Ruben Bos)

Everything started with a quick idea back in the spring of 2014. We were on an Interrail journey through 14 European countries to interview young people on their perspectives on Europe, politics, and their own futures.

After several weeks, we arrived in Vienna and met up with essayist Robert Menasse for dinner. At that dinner table, we talked about how this travelling experience had changed our view of Europe and its people.

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Both of us had been fervent Europeans before – or so we thought. In fact, we realised that only by travelling Europe and meeting young people from different backgrounds, we truly came to understand and appreciate Europe in all its beauty and diversity.

We had turned from Europeans in theory to Europeans from experience.

The three of us came up with an idea: why doesn’t the European Commission hand out Interrail passes to all EU youth for free?

In the summer of 2015, a year later, the EU seemed to be at its all-time low. Tensions between Germany and Greece were unbearable, we all witnessed the return of nationalistic rhetoric. Additionally, the question on how to take care of refugees divided the EU and called into question the very idea of Schengen, one of the EU’s most prominent features.

We also noticed how disconnected our generation felt from those in Brussels. Many of our friends across Europe shared with us how disillusioned they were with the EU and all their focus on banks and currencies.

Make mobility a right

Worse, our generation showed clear symptoms of an internal rift: there were those who had access to Europe and all its benefits of travelling and international experiences; and there were those, who did not have that access.

These young people felt disconnected, left alone, and, in their frustration, turned increasingly to populist and anti-European parties.

Could free Interrail passes be the solution to these European problems? The basic idea: every EU citizen receives a personal letter from the European Commission upon turning 18.

This letter includes a voucher for a one-month-Interrail pass, to be used within the next six years. The voucher could be turned in for a pass at any train station. We believe that this idea, we called it #FreeInterrail, has three major advantages.

First, it would increase youth mobility and lower access to it. Currently, many young people do not travel much or at all and have no connection to the EU.

Erasmus is a wonderful programme that benefited EU youth in giving them a perspective on Europe. However, Erasmus only reaches a small percentage of all youth. A little bit more then three million students have participated since 1987, yet there are 190 million people under the age of 30 in the EU.

#FreeInterrail would make mobility a right for all EU citizens, independent of financial or national backgrounds.

Second, sending youth travelling is the best protection against nationalism and divisive ideologies. By travelling, youth would explore Europe with their own eyes, make friends in other countries, and learn about the beauty of diversity. This would increase awareness of what the EU is all about: its people.

Reconnecting EU youth with the EU itself

By having practical experience in foreign countries and by meeting people of different backgrounds from their own, young travellers would understand the inherent similarities. S/he who travels does not set fire to refugee homes or vote for (semi-) fascist parties.

Third, #FreeInterrail would (re)connect EU youth with the EU itself. Already the experience of receiving a personalised letter from the European Commission would be life-changing for young adults. "We are part of your life and we care about you," it would say.

While before EU youth had to approach the EU if they wanted to participate in exchange programmes, now the EU proactively engages its youth and opens a door to Europe for them.

These benefits may be the biggest and most obvious ones, but clearly there are more: by raising youth mobility, one would also raise youth labour mobility and help to integrate young people into job markets across the EU.

Also, #FreeInterrail could be connected to other programs, such as the European Voluntary Services, Erasmus, and many others. Schools across the continent could prepare their students for their Interrail trips. Young would travel in groups or on their own.

It seems worthwhile to consider building a couch-surfing network around #FreeInterrail so that young people could stay with other (former) #FreeInterrailers for free and deepen friendships and personal connections.

The cost? Every year roughly 5.5 million EU citizens turn 18. An Interrail Global Pass costs €479. If every young person would use them, this would cost around €2.6 billion a year.

EU Parliament initiative

The Erasmus budget ranks similar per year, and that would be less than two percent of the EU's current budget. The effects would easily outweigh the costs, as it tackles several deep problems at once: the rise of nationalism, lack of trust in the EU, a divided and disconnect young generation.

#FreeInterrail has started to catch fire: In February, we started working with MEPs Istvan Ujhelyi (S&D), Rebecca Harms and Michael Cramer (Greens), and Gesine Meissner (Liberals), who formed an initiative in the European Parliament that seeks to get approval for a pilot project on #FreeInterrail.

Just recently, the head of the EPP group Manfred Weber proposed it on the floor of the European Parliament. Shortly after, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi voiced his support for the idea.

More work needs to be done. We all have to work together to make this idea a reality for Europe's youth and future.

Vincent-Immanuel Herr (27) and Martin Speer (30) have done research on European youth for several years. Their work has been supported by a variety of foundations, including Stiftung Mercator, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Schwarzkopf Stiftung, and others.

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