The European Commission said it was ready to consider handing out free InterRail tickets to all young Europeans when they turn 18, picking up on a proposal made by members of the European Parliament in an attempt to counter the wave of euroscepticism spreading across the continent.
“We are ready to explore it further,” the Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, told Members of the European Parliament who were meeting in Strasbourg for a plenary session on Tuesday (9 October).
The Commissioner said she admired “the boldness and the level of ambition” expressed by EU legislators who first made the proposal.
Calling it an “excellent idea”, Bulc explained that she wants to look into all possible options by “carefully” assessing the potential costs, funding sources and the project’s administrative feasibility.
The Commission is also ready to consider “progressively” extending the proposal to other means of transport, Bulc said.
Inspired by the legislators’ ‘out of the box’ thinking, Bulc even suggested launching a competition for every youngster under 25 “with a substantial prize for the best new concrete ideas for youth mobility”.
Broad support from MEPs
The free-train-ticket antidote against the political malaise affecting Europeans is widely supported inside Parliament by MEPs from the main political groups – including the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the Greens and the Liberals (ALDE).
“I am convinced that the 18th birthday InterRail pass for Europe could become a true lighthouse project for the development of a common European identity in diversity,” said EPP group leader Manfred Weber, who champions the initiative with other MEPs.
Weber, a German Conservative who became an enthusiastic backer of the scheme after he used it to travel around Europe with his cousin, flagged the idea during the State of the Union debate in September.
While the proposal gained some traction among national politicians (Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called it “a good idea”), political groups started to fight over who came up with the suggestion first.
Hungarian Socialist MEP István Ujhelyi pointed out after the State of the Union debate that he sent an identical proposal to the Commission in August 2015.
But EPP sources recalled that the Dutch Christian Democrats (CDA) included a similar project in their manifesto for the 2009 European Parliament elections.
The CDA called for “every European pupil, after successful completion of secondary education [average age of 16 to 19 years],” to be able to “travel through Europe for free with public transport during one month,” adding “This can be financed from European funds”.
The proposal still faces numerous questions about its feasibility and, perhaps more importantly, about its relevance in addressing the most pressing challenges the EU faces today, including youth unemployment.
The Commission needs to find between €1.2 billion and €2.88 billion in the EU budget to finance the scheme. As a Parliament source noted, legislators get furious when you touch the funding of the programmes they support.
An InterRail ticket costs between €200 and €480 and, according to the EPP, around 6 million young Europeans could benefit from the initiative annually.
Besides, Malta, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are not part of the InterRail system, which would force the executive to study the best option to implement it while being inclusive for all EU citizens.
‘A spark’ to light up the European fire
Moreover, a number of officials remarked that euroscepticism and populism was not on the rise among young people, but rather among the elderly.
Even those who supported the free-train-ticket programme admitted that the “tremendous challenges” Europe faces dwarf initiatives like this one. “But you have to start from somewhere, it is not enough with bashing Europe all the time,” an EU official said on condition of anonymity.
“This may not sound like much but sometimes it only takes a spark to light a fire that burns forever,” Weber said.
MEPs will suggest financing a pilot project to sound the waters. However, the EPP, the Socialists and the Greens decided not to include an amendment to the draft budget for 2017, postponing the start of the programme at least until 2018.
For the EPP, the programme should be financed not only by EU funds but also the InterRail train companies. It should be fully operational by 2018.