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Is a Free InterRail Pass Enough to Make Young People Believe in the European Union?

Free InterRail tickets for 18 year-old Europeans: this proposal was recently presented by the European Parliament and the Commission has stated that they ‘are ready to explore it further’. The idea behind this initiative is to enable all young people to learn more about the European Union. In the words of the German Member of the European Parliament Manfred Weber: ‘People all around Europe must get to know and learn to cherish each other’. Of course, it is true that travelling, a cosmopolitan attitude and pro-European attitudes are linked and that young people are the future of European Union as they will be the ones who will make the decisions very soon. With this idea in mind, the European Union now wants to reinforce its ties with young people and try to awaken a European identity among them.

After the result of the Brexit referendum MEPs have realised the importance of paying special attention to young people. In the case of Brexit, young people voted ‘Remain’ to a larger extent than old(er) people, but the low turn-out among the young and the high turnout among the older allowed the ‘leave option’ to win. At times when Euroscepticism is increasing, it is more than ever necessary to promote an active involvement of young European citizens. And yet two questions emerge: Are young people really the most suitable target if it comes to counter Euroscepticism and is the ‘InterRail initiative’ good enough to bring the young closer to the EU? I have serious doubts in both respects.

Are young people Europe’s hope?

It is obvious that young Europeans today will be the generation in command in the near future which is why it is so important to pay attention to them. But, should the EU focus exclusively on them? Firstly, let us figure out how the young relate to the EU and what the reasons behind that are. When we compare the relationship of the young generation towards the European Union with that of older generations we come across fundamental differences.

The young can be considered a generation which is more likely to identify with the EU than previous generations due to the political context in which they have been socialised. The young generation has grown up enjoying the benefits and opportunities of being European citizens: educational and job mobility, voting in European elections, etc. In addition, they have higher levels of education in comparison with previous generations and they also have more contact with people from other Member States. Their stage of live allows them to travel or to work or study in another country. They lack the responsibility of bringing up children or developing a career that adulthood entails. For all these reasons, it is not surprising that young people think of the EU in a utilitarian way, considering what the EU has to offer as integral part of their daily lives and taking it for granted.

Older generations on the other hand have lived through the beginnings of the EU (EEC) and/or the EU accession of their countries. Even if the EU was an ‘elitist project’, older people could identify themselves with the European project as their generations have contributed to building the EU. They have witnessed the shift to greater integration of the EU. Also, those who still carry the trauma of World War II with them, see the EU as a guarantee of peace in Europe. This means that their relationship with the EU is more emotional and idealistic.

This has implications for the way age groups identify themselves with the EU. According to Eurobarometer data for 2015 young people think of themselves as Europeans more often than old(er) people. 62 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 24 see themselves as Europeans compared with 51 percent of those over 55. Also, of those over 55 years 48 percent define themselves exclusively in terms of nationality compared with 36 percent of those between 15 and 24 years. This is not the only difference in the way both age groups relate to the EU. When asked about the most positive result the EU has achieved, the findings confirm the hypothesis that people older than 55 see peace as the major achievement of the EU whereas for young people (15-24) this is free movement and student exchange.

Although older generations have a positive feeling about the EU, seemingly paradoxically they also have a strong link with their nationalities. While younger people have grown up in a more integrated EU which has led them to consider themselves as Europeans, older people are more nationally rooted. Those over 55 have lived with more national power and have experienced the progressive surrender of national autonomy. They have appreciated the EU to maintain the peace between European countries but they have reservations about the globalisation which the EU represents now in their eyes. According to a study from Pew Research Center  this is a global generation gap. Older Americans and Western Europeans are less likely to embrace globalisation and express more national pride.

Is a free InterRail pass an effective instrument to bring the EU closer to young people?

Now we know how young and old people relate to the EU, we will again ask the question if promoting travelling around the EU can really foster a European identity.
It seems that young people are perfectly aware of the opportunities the EU offers them, so it is not necessary to reinforce this idea. Travelling around Europe will help to come to know more about European countries and their culture but, does it also mean more contact with other Europeans? I am not sure and I think it is exactly the contact with others which is the main way to strengthen ties with the EU. It is also important to consider the fact that many young people will not be able to use this opportunity because they do not have money for the expenses that travelling entails beyond the train fare such as accommodation, food, etc. Let`s not forget that the economic crisis has hit young people particularly hard. The last EU youth report concluded that the crisis ‘has widened the gap between those with more and those with fewer opportunities’.

Eighteen year olds may not yet be really worried about getting a job or having money for their down payments but they will be in a near future. Although I consider this initiative a good idea, what young people really want is an EU in which they can get a proper job and develop their personal and professional life. Finally, the EU should be more than something utilitarian. Promising in this respect looks the initiative the European Commission launched on 7 December: the European Solidarity Corps. This initiative wants to create opportunities for young people (18-30) participating in projects such as helping to prevent natural disasters or rebuild afterwards, assisting in centres for asylum seekers, or addressing different social issues in communities. This can be done in the way of volunteering, doing an apprenticeship or a traineeship or even as a job. The aim is to build a more inclusive society together by helping people around Europe. I hope the initiative will achieve its goal – we’ll have to wait and see.

But the young generation should not be the only target group the EU should worry about. More attention should go out to those generations who helped to build up the European project and nowadays are dissatisfied and disillusioned as the challenges have become more complex. In the light of globalisation and the economic and migrant crisis, older generations are backsliding into nostalgic ideas of national autonomy, but the solutions sought after in ‘the good old times’ are pseudo-solutions not applicable to the current problems. All generations are needed to re-build a European project which seems to be on the verge of collapse. It will take more than an InterRail pass to make people all around Europe to get to know and learn to cherish each other – and the European Union.

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