The European Union will gift 60,000 young people a chance to explore Europe by train in 2022, as the ‘DiscoverEU’ programme relaunches following its pandemic-driven hiatus.
The announcement was made earlier this week in the European Parliament by Mariya Gabriel, the EU commissioner in charge of innovation, research, culture, education and youth.
The programme provides 18-year-olds with free Interrail passes in the hopes cross-border travel will foster greater intercultural unity across the bloc.
Tickets are allocated to member states based on population-size and can be applied for by those who recently turned 18.
The figure of 60,000 tickets is double the usual amount, as EU citizens who had their 18th birthday in 2020 are eligible to apply in addition to those coming of age in 2021.
The programme is expected to open for applications in October, with selected participants able to travel between March 2022 and March 2023 for a period of 30 days. As the trajectory of the pandemic remains unknown, all travellers will be exceptionally offered flexible bookings and interruption insurance.
From 2022, DiscoverEU will be funded under Erasmus+, an educational programme that enables young people to study abroad, meaning non-EU citizens will be eligible take advantage of the travel passes scheme.
The integration into Erasmus+ also means that DiscoverEU is required to adopt a more structured learning approach.
Travellers will need to take part in a pre-departure meeting to discuss the significance of the DiscoverEU programme, and later join a “meet-up”, during which those in the same location will partake in cultural activities with locals, preferably in a place of “historical, cultural or sustainable relevance”.
The EU will also encourage travellers to set their sights beyond the bustling streets of Venice or the beer gardens of Berlin, instead asking them to visit lesser-known destinations in more remote areas of Europe.
The move is expected to help a cultural sector reeling from the impact of the pandemic. It also comes amid a backlash from the residents of the continent’s most visited cities, many of whom complain their neighbourhoods are overrun by tourists.
The DiscoverEU application process requires candidates to respond to six quiz questions about European history and culture. Responses are then reviewed by officials at the European Commission and winners selected.
The passes entitle holders to travel by rail, though there are exceptions for those living on islands or in remote areas, who may also use ferries or, in exceptional circumstances, air travel.
EU Commissioner for research, innovation, and youth Mariya Gabriel expressed hope that Discover EU will make young people more positive about rail travel, calling the programme “a key element” in supporting the aims of the current European Year of Rail.
Great opportunity for #youth to discover Europe & themselves. With @EUErasmusPlus we will:
📚 reinforce its #learning dimension
🛤 promote travelling to the outskirts of 🇪🇺
🤝 foster #inclusiveness pic.twitter.com/cabeHnxYsm
— Mariya Gabriel (@GabrielMariya) February 15, 2021
A political compromise
DiscoverEU attracted some 75,000 applications from across Europe in 2019.
In 2017, MEPs approved a motion to give all Europeans free Interrail passes on their 18th birthdays, but this was rejected by the European Commission on the grounds that the estimated €1.6 billion price tag was too high.
The DiscoverEU programme is considered a political compromise between the institutions, offering around 30,000 18-year-olds per year free travel passes. It is foreseen that this figure will be scaled up as Erasmus+ funding becomes available.
The idea of free Interrail passes for young people was spearheaded in 2014 by German friends Vincent-Immanuel Herr and Martin Speer, who saw travel as a way to increase European solidarity. The two launched a petition, which attracted over 40,000 signatures from across the continent.
The idea was debated in the European Parliament, where it was strongly supported by German MEP Manfred Weber, leader of the parliament’s largest group, the centre-right European People’s Party.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]