60,000 Europeans to Get Free Interrail Pass This Year

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967The mentorship group of DiscoverEU (FreeInterrail) has been officially formed by Members of the European Parliament today. At their first meeting on Monday, the responsible EU Commissioner announced that the application will be open to 60,000 young Europeans this year, retrospectively including 18-year-olds who had not had the chance to travel last year due to the COVID19 pandemic, the leader of the mentorship group, MEP István Ujhelyi said after the meeting.

The original concept of “FreeInterRail” comes from two young German activists, Vincent-Immanuel Herr and Martin Speer, who a few years ago came up with the idea that the European Union should surprise all young Europeans with a free train pass on its eighteenth birthday. The proposal was first embraced by István Ujhelyi, who supported the project all along up to its implementation, in which EPP Group Chairman Manfred Weber and former EU Commissioner Tibor Navracsics also played a significant role.

During the pilot phase of the program, more than 350,000 European youngsters applied for the opportunity, more than 70,000 of whom were granted free train passes. The success of the program is well illustrated by the fact that the program won many awards, such as the European Award for Excellence. In the EU’s next seven-year budget, the free InterRail pass program (under the name DiscoverEU) has been granted its own budget in the framework of Erasmus +, ensuring its future in the years to come.

The online discussion was also attended by EU Commissioner for Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel who announced that 60,000 young Europeans will get the opportunity to apply this year. Applicants will also including those who were eighteen last year but due to restrictions introduced in combatting the pandemic could not get to travel around Europe. The new round of applications is expected to be held in October, following the much hoped-for lifting of travel restrictions. Mariya Gabriel also said that they would make the usage period of tickets more flexible and also want to ensure the safety of young people traveling on as broad a scale as possible. The EU Commissioner said that a priority for DiscoverEU was to be an integrated and useful part of the Erasmus + program, therefore the role of education and knowledge dissemination is set to be increased. Mariya Gabriel added that ‘meet-ups’ would be organised in all Member States to promote and develop the program, and that young travellers would be attracted to areas that are currently less popular tourist destinations. In connection with the latter, she said they wished to to establish meaningful cooperation with regional museums and local cultural institutions.

Speaking at the online event, Martin Speer thanked Members of the European Parliament for their support and the work of the European Commission, indicating that DiscoverEU was the perfect proof of the EU being open to citizens’ initiatives. “Don’t give up! The time for traveling in Europe will be back,” said the young German activist who first came up with the concept of FreeInterRail.

Director-General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Alessandra Priante also ensured the mentorship group and the DiscoverEU initiative of her support, which she said she believed could give a meaningful boost and impetus to European tourism once the pandemic was over.

“Undoubtedly, this is one of the European Union’s most progressive and most promising programs. I am proud to have been a part of its implementation and to be a mentor in its development,” said MEP István Ujhelyi. He recalled that he had repeatedly urged the Hungarian government to be a partner in the program and let Hungary be the first European Member State to provide free train passes for young people over the age of eighteen every year at the expense of the state budget. According to the politician of MSZP, this would cost about 9 billion forints a year.

Ujhelyi added that several Hungarian cities and settlements have already joined his initiative, for example, Ajka and Veszprém had bought free train passes from their own budgets to make them available for local young people.

Brussels- 15.02.2021

Letter to President Ursula von der Leyen

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To: Ms Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

Budapest, 13 February 2021

Dear President von der Leyen,

During this week’s plenary session, the European Parliament took a remarkable step towards a more social, more digital and greener recovery by confirming, with an overwhelming majority, the political agreement reached on the Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation last December.

The Recovery and Resilience Facility provides Member States with a unique chance to rebuild and revamp their economies and societies for the post-COVID world. It is an opportunity to build resilience and to embrace a digitalised and greener future. In order to recover from the crisis and meet the challenges of the 21st century, Member States should seize the opportunity offered by the RRF funding to free their economies of bottlenecks and refresh outdated policies and practices.

The Council’s approval opens the way for the formal signing of the regulation by the presidents of the ECOFIN Council and the European Parliament. Thus, it is time to focus all efforts on the preparation and submission of ambitious national recovery and resilience plans.

As it is clearly laid down in the regulation, “regional and local authorities can be important partners in the implementation of reforms and investments. In that regard, they should be appropriately consulted and involved”.

During the past couple of weeks, a great number of civil society organisations, local and regional authorities, social partners and youth organisations reached out to us, underlining the lack of involvement and consultation they experienced in the preparatory phase of the Hungarian national reform and recovery plan. On 9 February, 33 civil society organisations wrote a joint letter to Mr Szabolcs Ágostházy, Minister of State for European Union-funded Developments, who is inter alia in charge of the RRF preparation of the national recovery and resilience plan. Since the initiation of the joint letter, numerous civil organisations have co-signed the letter, and as of today, 51 organisations call for the widest and most meaningful participation of non-governmental organisations and professional communities in the consultation process. In an open letter sent by Mr László Kordás, President of the Hungarian Trade Union Confederation (MASZSZ) to Mr Sándor Bodó, Minister of State for Employment Policy, MASZSZ considered the documents prepared by the government on the use of EU recovery funds to be of insufficient quality and urged meaningful consultation.

The Recovery and Resilience Facility can only be effective if national governments conduct appropriate and comprehensive consultations with the widest possible range of relevant actors. Thus, it is our common interest and responsibility to avoid hollow consultations that could easily lead to the inappropriate use of this unique opportunity. As the summary of the conducted consultations will serve as one of the assessment criteria of the national recovery and resilience plans, an inadequate consultation can endanger the timely adoption and implementation of the national recovery and resilience plans.

Hungarian government officials have also announced that a significant amount, approximately 420 million EUR covered by the Recovery and Resilience Facility will be used to modernise Hungarian universities. While investing in education is a goal we share deeply, we are alarmed that this initiative was announced right after the government had started to eradicate the current, state-run structure of Hungarian universities and created an entirely new system where the universities will be operated by designated asset management foundations. Under current legislation, public funds from the national budget and managed by these foundations do not qualify as public money anymore. This would effectively preclude transparency and public scrutiny over these funds.

Let us express our deep concern over both the lack of proper consultation and the creation of shadowy structures to disburse EU funds. These developments could seriously jeopardise the timely and transparent disbursement of available resources and endanger Hungarian and European recovery from the pandemic.

We would respectfully like to ask you to closely follow the consultations led by the Hungarian Government and assess the summaries of the consultations to ensure that they comply with the rules set out in the legislation. We are convinced that it is of utmost importance to put a special emphasis on the evaluation of the conducted consultation process between national and local authorities.

Sincerely yours,

 

Gergely Karácsony, Mayor of Budapest

István Ujhelyi, Vice-Chair of the TRAN Committee, Member of the European Parliament

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