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Transport / Mass transit

Can free train tickets stop the EU from eating itself alive?

It’s that feeling. When you’ve broken up with someone, and it was all a bit messy and unpleasant, and then two weeks later they post an absolutely killer Instagram and you’re left thinking: “Why on earth did I do that?”

That’s what the EU’s trying to do to us now, the saucy minx.

In October last year, a wiry and slightly balding Member of the European Parliament put forward a rather daring proposal. Manfred Weber, a Bavarian MEP for the CSU party, thought all European 18-year-olds should get a free Interrail pass for their birthday.

From Bavaria, With Love

“The mobility of young people is essential in promoting a sense of belonging to Europe, enhancing social cohesion, and ensuring a competitive European economy,” he said.

The solution to all political problems – more trains! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Populism and the spread of misinformation is one of the biggest threats Europe is currently facing. In this context young generations have a key role to play as a counterweight, and the European Union have to give them the mean to discover [sic] who their neighbours are and what the opportunities another member state can bring to any single European.”

If two-thirds of all eligible Europeans took up the offer, the costs would tot up to around about €1.5bn a year, according to German news service Tagesschau. But as Weber said; “The European Union has heavily invested into railway infrastructure mounting up to 30 per cent of the investments in certain member states, and the rail-oriented funds will grow from €23.4bn to €29.9bn for 2014-20.” His logic? That adding on a bit of cash here and there won’t actually make that much difference.

The idea is that giving all 18-year-olds the chance to gallivant around Europe for free will make them feel nice warm cuddly feelings about the EU, explore and learn to love other countries, customs, and nationalities. That in turn should keep them away from the kind of Eurosceptic populism that cleft Britain from the EU, and is rocking the boat in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Slovakia, Sweden, Denmark, and – oh yeah. Everywhere.

Why have populism when you can have two parallel Deutsche Bahn ICEs? Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Even ignoring the fact that €1.5bn a year is a hell of a lot of money, the scheme falls into a few potholes. One is that two member states – Cyprus and Malta – have absolutely no railways. Another is that the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – aren’t part of the Interrail scheme.

Weber says the programme could “cover the cost for other means of transport to join the next member state connected, such as bus or ferry”, though the details of what that might mean are sketchy.

Bulc-buying train tickets

But Europe’s commissioner for transport, Violeta Bulc, says it’s an “excellent idea”. She’s running a study into the feasibility of the programme – both in terms of finance and administration – and has said that other similar options may be explored, like running a lottery for young people to enter in which a significant number would win tickets.

I don’t think Interrail passes cover RER trains, but look! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The company that actually runs Interrail, Dutch firm Eurail.com BV, welcomed the idea with a cautious kind of optimism. They said it “would be a big undertaking to get over five million 18-year-olds to travel with Interrail for free every year”. Though for them, of course, it could be the cash cow of their hopes and dreams.

Practicalities aside – is there actually any point doing it?

If it ain’t Brexit, don’t fix it

There’s a limit to how useful Brexit can be as an example in this instance – we were never fully integrated into the European project in the same way as other member states, and our geographic separation combined with our strange mythology of otherness no doubt provided the bulk of the cultural context in which leaving the bloc seemed plausible.

But if Europe is trying to learn lessons as to how to hold itself together, it will no doubt be to our separatist example that heads turn.

This article was mostly an excuse for soft-core Euro train porn. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Breaking down the result of June’s referendum by age group presents an obvious problem. Three-quarters of 18-24 year-olds voted to Remain in the EU, sliding to 56 per cent among 25-49-year-olds. Past the age of 50, Leave slid into the majority; only 44 per cent of 50-64-year-olds voted to stay in the bloc, and among folk above retiring age that proportion slithered down to 39 per cent.

And while it’s hard to know how much of that euroscepticism is ingrained in each of those generation by predisposition and political experience, as oppposed to how much of it is simply the result of growing older, what seems clear is that the young aren’t necessarily the problem.

Bouncy sprightly young things are great news for Europe; they already hop around on trains and planes and Erasmus programmes exploring the continent in the hundreds of thousands, have friendships across borders, and (at least on the continent) think of themselves as European as much as nationally bound.

Switzerland is technically not in the EU but that’s not the point. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The problem is the old codgers.

The brief interlude, of course, is that social class and economic welfare was almost as important to determining how Brits voted in the 2016 referendum – which is where a scheme like the universal Interrail pass for 18-year-olds could come in handy.

Whereas sproglets with the cash to splash on a month of TGV-hopping were more likely to vote Remain, young people from poorer backgrounds and fewer opportunities to embark on such adventures were more likely to want to leave.

So in theory, doling out the chance to travel to everyone could encourage those at the bottom end of the socioeconomic travel to get out and about in Europe, increase their ‘European-ness’ and foster international cultural closeness.


But splashing the cash on the young is still unlikely to be the long-term political game-changer optimistic MEPs yearn for. A free trip around Europe in, say, 2020 may not make much difference to support for the union in 2062 when that person reaches 60.

So why not flip it around? Instead of wasting money on mindless younglings who already love the project, why not offer all 60-year-olds a free pass for their birthday? Or attach the right to claim an Interrail pass to universal European retirement packages?

Sure, the baby boomers have benefitted from all the world’s riches whilst screwing almost everything up, but if it takes a few billion euros and some train tickets to shut them up and stop them ruining anything else – why not? 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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