Can free train tickets stop the EU from eating itself alive?

The Cize–Bolozon viaduct is a prime example of why trains are too pretty to be wasted on the young. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It’s that feeling. When you’ve broken up with someone, and it was all a bit messy and unpleasant, and then two weeks later they post an absolutely killer Instagram and you’re left thinking: “Why on earth did I do that?”

That’s what the EU’s trying to do to us now, the saucy minx.

In October last year, a wiry and slightly balding Member of the European Parliament put forward a rather daring proposal. Manfred Weber, a Bavarian MEP for the CSU party, thought all European 18-year-olds should get a free Interrail pass for their birthday.

From Bavaria, With Love

“The mobility of young people is essential in promoting a sense of belonging to Europe, enhancing social cohesion, and ensuring a competitive European economy,” he said.

The solution to all political problems – more trains! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Populism and the spread of misinformation is one of the biggest threats Europe is currently facing. In this context young generations have a key role to play as a counterweight, and the European Union have to give them the mean to discover [sic] who their neighbours are and what the opportunities another member state can bring to any single European.”

If two-thirds of all eligible Europeans took up the offer, the costs would tot up to around about €1.5bn a year, according to German news service Tagesschau. But as Weber said; “The European Union has heavily invested into railway infrastructure mounting up to 30 per cent of the investments in certain member states, and the rail-oriented funds will grow from €23.4bn to €29.9bn for 2014-20.” His logic? That adding on a bit of cash here and there won’t actually make that much difference.

The idea is that giving all 18-year-olds the chance to gallivant around Europe for free will make them feel nice warm cuddly feelings about the EU, explore and learn to love other countries, customs, and nationalities. That in turn should keep them away from the kind of Eurosceptic populism that cleft Britain from the EU, and is rocking the boat in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Slovakia, Sweden, Denmark, and – oh yeah. Everywhere.

Why have populism when you can have two parallel Deutsche Bahn ICEs? Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Even ignoring the fact that €1.5bn a year is a hell of a lot of money, the scheme falls into a few potholes. One is that two member states – Cyprus and Malta – have absolutely no railways. Another is that the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – aren’t part of the Interrail scheme.

Weber says the programme could “cover the cost for other means of transport to join the next member state connected, such as bus or ferry”, though the details of what that might mean are sketchy.

Bulc-buying train tickets

But Europe’s commissioner for transport, Violeta Bulc, says it’s an “excellent idea”. She’s running a study into the feasibility of the programme – both in terms of finance and administration – and has said that other similar options may be explored, like running a lottery for young people to enter in which a significant number would win tickets.

I don't think Interrail passes cover RER trains, but look! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The company that actually runs Interrail, Dutch firm Eurail.com BV, welcomed the idea with a cautious kind of optimism. They said it “would be a big undertaking to get over five million 18-year-olds to travel with Interrail for free every year”. Though for them, of course, it could be the cash cow of their hopes and dreams.

Practicalities aside – is there actually any point doing it?

If it ain’t Brexit, don’t fix it

There’s a limit to how useful Brexit can be as an example in this instance – we were never fully integrated into the European project in the same way as other member states, and our geographic separation combined with our strange mythology of otherness no doubt provided the bulk of the cultural context in which leaving the bloc seemed plausible.

But if Europe is trying to learn lessons as to how to hold itself together, it will no doubt be to our separatist example that heads turn.

This article was mostly an excuse for soft-core Euro train porn. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Breaking down the result of June’s referendum by age group presents an obvious problem. Three-quarters of 18-24 year-olds voted to Remain in the EU, sliding to 56 per cent among 25-49-year-olds. Past the age of 50, Leave slid into the majority; only 44 per cent of 50-64-year-olds voted to stay in the bloc, and among folk above retiring age that proportion slithered down to 39 per cent.

And while it’s hard to know how much of that euroscepticism is ingrained in each of those generation by predisposition and political experience, as oppposed to how much of it is simply the result of growing older, what seems clear is that the young aren’t necessarily the problem.

Bouncy sprightly young things are great news for Europe; they already hop around on trains and planes and Erasmus programmes exploring the continent in the hundreds of thousands, have friendships across borders, and (at least on the continent) think of themselves as European as much as nationally bound.

Switzerland is technically not in the EU but that's not the point. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The problem is the old codgers.

The brief interlude, of course, is that social class and economic welfare was almost as important to determining how Brits voted in the 2016 referendum – which is where a scheme like the universal Interrail pass for 18-year-olds could come in handy.

Whereas sproglets with the cash to splash on a month of TGV-hopping were more likely to vote Remain, young people from poorer backgrounds and fewer opportunities to embark on such adventures were more likely to want to leave.

So in theory, doling out the chance to travel to everyone could encourage those at the bottom end of the socioeconomic travel to get out and about in Europe, increase their ‘European-ness’ and foster international cultural closeness.


But splashing the cash on the young is still unlikely to be the long-term political game-changer optimistic MEPs yearn for. A free trip around Europe in, say, 2020 may not make much difference to support for the union in 2062 when that person reaches 60.

So why not flip it around? Instead of wasting money on mindless younglings who already love the project, why not offer all 60-year-olds a free pass for their birthday? Or attach the right to claim an Interrail pass to universal European retirement packages?

Sure, the baby boomers have benefitted from all the world’s riches whilst screwing almost everything up, but if it takes a few billion euros and some train tickets to shut them up and stop them ruining anything else – why not? 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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