“The feeling of Europe” – Interrail for all 18-year-olds

Two Berliners want to enable all young Europeans to travel around Europe by train free of charge and to arouse their enthusiasm for the European idea. Their plan could now become reality.

privat - Martin Speer, Vincent-Immanuel Herr

It all began with a long train journey and numerous encounters with dissatisfied young people in Europe. When the two Berliners Martin Speer and Vincent-Immanuel Herr set off through the countries of Europe in 2014 there were a number of things they wanted to find out. What do young people in Europe want? What are their fears? And what prospects do they believe they have? They conducted interviews in 14 countries and discovered that many young Europeans feel they are not being listened to properly. Many complained that they didn’t have any influence on political decisions. “We also noticed that the European idea is often incredibly abstract for young people,” says Martin Speer. For him and his travelling companion Vincent-Immanuel Herr, on the other hand,  their enthusiasm for Europe increased with each new country and each new encounter. The train journey became an eye-opener for both of them. “Before the journey Europe was only a theory to us, afterwards it was a feeling,” says Speer.

Bringing about long-term positive change in Europe

They took their feeling of enthusiasm and their knowledge of young people’s concerns to Vienna where they met the Austrian writer Robert Menasse. While eating schnitzel together they narrated their experiences and came upon an idea: why shouldn’t every 18-year-old European receive a free Interrail pass for their birthday – and use it to discover Europe themselves and get to know people in other countries? The idea behind Interrail is that you can complete an unlimited number of train journeys inside Europe within a specific period of time. The idea for #FreeInterrail was born. “It offers the great opportunity to strengthen a joint European identity within a generation,” says Speer. “The project does not simply have the effect of a plaster for a short-term problem. Instead it can bring about long-term positive change in Europe.”

At present, roughly 300,000 Europeans a year get to know Scandinavia or the Mediterranean region, the Balkans or the Baltic with an Interrail pass. Approximately 5.5 million 18-year-olds currently live in the European Union. This number may be large, but then so is the challenge behind the #FreeInterrail idea. After all, if all Europeans of this age are to receive a ticket, the costs are estimated to be up to 1.8 billion euros a year.

“Developing understanding for one another”

Martin Speer believes this money would be a good investment. “The European idea is currently in danger of disintegrating because ordinary people are losing faith in it, nationalism is again on the rise and more emphasis is being placed on difference,” says the 30-year-old. That’s why he feels people in Europe must again develop more understanding for one another and recognise how much they have in common. “FreeInterrail can help to do that.”

The two activists Herr and Speer have meanwhile gained broad support for their project: from enthusiastic parents and youth organisations like Young European Federalists to Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström. In the European Parliament political parties have spoken in favour of the project across different parliamentary groups. “The Commission likes the idea,” said European Commission for Transport Violeta Bulc.

“Open for new ideas”

Martin Speer and Vincent-Immanuel Herr have now achieved a first concrete success: the European Commission wants to launch a pilot project for a free Interrail pass. Money for this purpose has already been allocated in the 2017 EU budget. How is will be used exactly is still unclear. In the long term, however, everyone should benefit, emphasises Martin Speer. “It should be generally available and not become a programme for an elite group,” he says.

The 30-year-old Berliner hopes that #FreeInterrail will also have an impact beyond the actual project. Many ordinary people currently see political institutions as closed shops. “Our project can make it clear that parliaments and institutions are open to new ideas,” says Speer. Their effort has shown that every citizen can achieve something in the EU.

With their idea the two young men could ultimately contribute to more people again identifying with the EU. After all, former European Commission President Jacques Delors knew long ago: “Nobody falls in love with a single market.”