BY GRACE SHIN
On October 4, 2016, the European Parliament debated a proposal to gift a month-long InterRail pass to each European teen on his 18th birthday to allow travel across Europe.
In light of events like Brexit and related anti-EU sentiments in other countries, a sense of inter-state division has emerged in Europe. With the proposal, the Parliament hopes to promote cultural exchange and create a stronger “sense of belonging” within the continent. This follows European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s call for greater cooperation in his State of the Union speech.
Manfred Weber, a center-right MEP of the European People’s Party, introduced the measure for debate in a Parliamentary plenary session. Noting Erasmus as a model, Weber praised the proposal as having the potential to “become a true lighthouse project for the development of a common European identity in diversity”.
In a video released on Twitter, Weber further noted that “when you see the beauty of the continent, then you can win the young people for the European idea”.
This initiative would allow EU citizens and legal residents to use the railway network connecting major cities throughout the continent. Citizens of states that do not have an Interrail connection, such as Latvia, Cyprus, Malta, Estonia, and Lithuania, would be given free access to a different mode of transportation, such as ferry or bus.
With a single Global Interrail pass costing €479, the scheme, if implemented, is estimated to cost €1.5 billion annually, assuming around 50 to 70 percent of the 5.4 million 18-year olds take advantage of the offer.
Most political groups within the European Parliament spoke out in favor of the proposal. Alexander Graff Lambsdorff of ALDE said, “There is a Europe with a soul and a heart and what better way of promoting it than giving young people the chance to explore it.”
The European Parliament’s Conference of Presidents has publicly announced its backing of the proposal.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, too, has expressed his support and deemed it “a very good idea”. Italy currently offers a similar program wherein all 18-year olds are given €500 to spend on cultural or social events.
EU Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc has said she admires the “boldness and level of ambition” of the proposal and will endeavor to make it work.
The proposal faces criticism from those who argue that spending billions on giving free travel to teenagers is unjustifiable when EU countries face other exigent concerns, such as rising youth unemployment.
How to source the budget to finance this initiative remains unclear.
Bulc offered up an alternate option: “a lottery with significant amounts of people winning free tickets”, to address the high cost of the scheme.
Critics further state that the initiative unfairly advantages youths in wealthier EU states at the expense of those in poorer nations. In the latter, the state of youth unemployment may leave teenagers unable to afford travel despite the a free ticket.
Another group that may not benefit from the scheme are Brits. By the time the proposal passes through the various stages of revision and approval in the Parliament and the European Council before becoming law, the United Kingdom may have already left the EU.
Gianni Pittella, Chief of the Social Democrats in the EP, remains unsold on the idea, stating that she is “not fully convinced that this is the EU’s top priority”.