The 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.