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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How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.