LONDON — Younger people used to be the main supporters of the European Union. But as the continent continues to struggle with existential problems that include economic crises and growing nationalism, the continent's youth is becoming disillusioned, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey.
Some E.U. politicians have now come up with a radically different idea to convince younger people that Europe isn't that bad after all: Encourage all 18-year-olds to travel the continent free by train.
Most European cities are connected by a vast railway network used by commuters, tourists and students as the most viable alternative to traveling by car. Younger citizens are also able to buy special tickets that allow them to travel on nearly all trains across the continent for a certain period of time. The "Inter-rail" program is popular among high school graduates who want to discover neighboring countries.
But according to politicians, "Inter-railing" could be the key to creating a positive perception of the E.U. among younger generations who already benefit from student exchange programs and open borders. Their hope is that participants will feel "European" after coming back from their trips to their home countries, and less "German" or "Italian," for instance.
The idea started to make headlines after a speech by German E.U. politician Manfred Weber last week. "What would happen if every young individual was given a free Inter-Rail ticket for his or her 18th birthday, to experience Europe?" Weber asked.
Since then, the seemingly rhetorical question has gained steam. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has called it "a very good idea." Renzi has pursued a similar initiative in his own country that will allow all 18-year-olds to receive 500 euros ($558) each to spend on cultural or social events. And the German government, whose support is considered crucial to pass such a policy, is also believed to be in favor of free train tickets for young Europeans.
"I think the particular charm of this idea is that it sends many positive signals for European integration and the younger generation," said Martin Speer, who has publicly advocated free Inter-Rail tickets since 2014 and lobbied politicians in Brussels to adopt the proposal. "Nobody would have to apply for it; everyone would receive the voucher when he or she turns 18 and would then have four to six years to make use of it."
But critics say that spending billions of dollars on such a scheme could become cynical, given that youth unemployment poses a much bigger concern to many young Europeans. In Greece, almost half of all young citizens are unemployed and would hardly be able to afford to travel Europe by train, even if the tickets themselves were free.
Supporters of the scheme, however, believe that their concept could have a positive impact on the European labor market by boosting the willingness of younger citizens living in poorer E.U. countries to move to wealthier states to find jobs.
Europe's railway networks themselves reveal the inner-European divisions that are at the core of debate. Whereas countries in the continent's west are particularly well connected, getting around in the south or east of Europe is much harder — mainly because of a lack of infrastructure investments. For example, one can travel from London to Paris in less than four hours, but a journey of the same distance can last more than 22 hours in Eastern Europe.
For that reason, Inter-rail trips for those who don't have enough money or time to travel for one full month are often limited to Western Europe, given how easy it is to get around there compared with other parts of the continent.
By trying to teach young Europeans to love their continent, E.U. politicians might also discover some of their own shortcomings.