Are we on track for free pan-European rail passes for youth?
The European Union should give pan-European InterRail passes for free to EU citizens on their 18th birthday – does this sound like a useful and feasible idea? Yes, according to Vincent-Immanuel Herr and Martin Speer. In 2015, the two German activists turned to the European Commission, the EU body making legislative proposals itself to support the plan.
HEALING THE DIVISION
They argue that “mobility is a key element to foster intercultural exchange, international friendships, and European integration. Through our travels, we realized the transformative power of getting to explore different places first-hand and actually meeting up with people from different backgrounds in person. Nothing makes us more European than actually seeing each other face-to-face.”
Therefore, handing out free InterRail passes could not just be some kind of useless giveaway but the means of real European integration – even for those who cannot afford to travel. This may sound appealing at a time of increasing tensions in Europe and weakening support for the European idea. “Could free InterRail passes have averted Brexit?” – ponders for example a journalist of UK newspaper The Guardian based on his own fond memories when he travelled with such a ticket.
SUPPORT IS GROWING BUT OBSTACLES ARE HIGH
But who and how would pay for it? EU statistics office Eurostat estimates that there were 5.46 million 18-years-old EU citizens in 2015. If they had all been given a month-long pass at full price, costs would have soared to 2.6 billion euros in that year alone. To put that in perspective, that is equivalent of 1.7 percent of total EU expenditure (without the additional costs of managing such a programme although there are cheaper passes for shorter durations).
In the beginning, the idea met with “polite rejection” from the European Commission due to concerns about the costs but these can be cut by gaining a discount for such a big volume of orders, said István Ujhelyi. He was the first but not the only member of the European Parliament to embrace the plan of the two activists. When he tabled a pilot project to examine the feasibility of such a programme, several German Green MEPs also had another proposal to hand out a limited number of tickets and try the whole idea out “in the field”. Both were turned down by the European Commission, but even the leader of the largest group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi threw his weight behind free InterRail passes.
These are not the only hints that support is building up. European Commissioner for transport Violeta Bulc told that free InterRail passes are an “excellent idea” that she firmly backs. However, she warned that a lot work still has to be done on the practicalities and costs. Expenditure could be limited by holding a lottery to hand out the tickets or to include only specific categories of young Europeans in the programme. Beside the financial and administrative burden, a problem can be for example that not all Member States' railway companies are InterRail members and the capacity and occupancy of the trains should also be examined.
source image: Unspalsh/Seth Doyle