Author: Catherine Stupp
MEPs are annoyed that a European Commission proposal to hand out €2.5 million to fund young students’ travel around Europe will only receive a fraction of the budget they wanted.
Free Interrail tickets for every 18-year-old in Europe would run up to €1.6 billion. The Commission suggested a cheaper alternative that will pay travel costs to a much smaller selection of 5,000 students this year.
That doesn’t go far enough for Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right European People’s Party, the largest group in the European Parliament. He came up with the more expensive plan for free Interrail tickets last autumn. The full 751-member Parliament approved his proposal earlier this year.
Interrail train tickets for people under age 26 range from €200 to €479, depending how long they stay valid.
The Commission’s version is smaller, cheaper and not limited to train travel. Flights, buses and ferry rides can also be covered by the €2.5 million fund. The funds are not planned to run beyond 2017.
Weber called the downsized travel fund a “missed opportunity” and said the costs to give 18-year-olds free Interrail tickets “are much lower” than the Commission’s estimate. He also insisted his proposal is “far from dead” because the Parliament will fight for it to be included in the 2018 EU budget. The Commission is expected to propose next year’s budget details within the next few months and will then face negotiations with MEPs and national governments before it’s approved.
MEPs argued that the plan for free travel between EU countries could help counter euroscepticism.
EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc called Weber’s suggestion to hand out free Interrail tickets an “excellent idea” last autumn and said she was “ready to explore it further”.
Commission officials have now brushed off criticism that they are skimping on the travel budget compared to Weber’s much more generous proposal. A Commission memo on the programme said “this kind of funding is currently not available” for the €1.6 billion Interrail plan.
Under the new Commission programme, schools that already participate in an EU exchange programme will handpick 5,000 students aged 16 or older who apply to use the funds.
Students will receive an EU-funded credit of €350 towards rail, bus, ferry or plane tickets, provided the full trip meets the CO2 limit that the Commission calculated for the programme. Rail travel has the lowest CO2 ranking, followed, in order of increasing emissions levels, by buses, ferries and planes. Students cannot receive the funds if they travel only by plane—they will have to balance flights out with other, less polluting transport means to lower the average CO2 emissions per kilometre for the entire trip.
Higher travel funds of €530 are available to students living in Cyprus, Malta, Iceland or in areas further away, like the Canary Islands or France’s overseas territories.
Karima Delli, a French Green MEP and chair of the Parliament’s Transport Committee, said EU money would be better spent on Interrail tickets because rail travel pollutes less than planes or buses.
“We hope that the CO2 weighting will enable people to be aware of their carbon footprint when travelling,” Delli told EURACTIV. But the programme “should not become teenagers’ pocket money to travel with low-cost companies such as Ryanair,” she added.
Railway lobby group CER had pushed for Weber’s original plan for free Interrail tickets.
“If the students look at the methodology of calculating the overall CO2 emissions from a trip, then I really hope that the majority apply for rail travel or buses, not aviation,” said Libor Lochman, director of CER.
“I’m pretty confident that railway won’t be penalised by the availability of flights” for funding under the programme, Lochman said.
Nineteen airlines, bus companies, train operators have agreed to give students discounted rates if they use the travel subsidy.
Two young Germans, Vincent-Immanuel Herr and Martin Speer, are believed to be at the origin of the idea of handing out free InterRail tickets to every young European.
Together, they approached a Socialist Hungarian MEP, István Ujhelyi, to seek support for the plan. István moved the idea forward, getting the support of the President of Transport Committee, Michael Cramer (Greens, Germany).
Currently, 300,000 people using InterRail every year. The European Commission will discuss the idea with rail operators to address the operational constraints – for example in terms of capacity and occupancy of trains.
The InterRail Pass is available to European residents. It allows for unlimited rail travel in and between 30 participating countries over a certain period of time.
The InterRail Global Pass gives access to several countries. Prices for under 26 year-olds vary from €200 to €479 for the Global Pass (all countries), depending on the validity period.