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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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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