This summer, I was fortunate enough to be one of 1500 18-year old Europeans who won an Interrail pass in the #DiscoverEU competition, organised by the European Commission. Here is the story of my experience, my wonderful discoveries and my difficulties behind this impressive publicity stunt from the EU.
By Elise Magne / 31.10.2018
The #DiscoverEU competition
12 million euros: the budget allotted by the Commission for this major competition launched at the start of June, for all European citizens aged 18 on the 1st of July 2018. The aim? To enable young people who would not necessarily have made or been able to make the leap to leave and discover several European countries in order to meet and make connections with locals.
According to MEP Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), “Europe is not just about technocratic politics. It is also about bringing people together. We have to make young people enthusiastic about Europe again.” A respectable aim, then.
However, it’s not completely without an expectation of something in return. In fact, the selected young people commit to becoming #DiscoverEU ambassadors, in other words, to share their experience regularly on social media using the #DiscoverEU hashtag, to mention EU institutions, in short, to spread the good word. However, you don’t, strictly speaking, have to be truthful, and you can even choose to keep your contact details private when enrolling, so as to not be contacted again.
“Mass communication, lack of communication”
In the final stages of enrolment, there were lots of inconsistencies and pitfalls to overcome during this first #DiscoverEU competition. The first problem: the delay between receiving the email announcing the winners, received at the end of June, and the email inviting them to confirm their enrolment in order to get that precious Interrail pass, that I received in the middle of July. Originally intending to go for 1 month, I therefore had to shorten my trip.
What’s more, we had the choice between several options during the enrolment process: fixed or flexible, to go alone or in a group. The issue: drowned in the abundance of information coming from different officials that clearly didn’t have the same information, we didn’t really know the advantages and disadvantages of each option, such as paying additional charges and the technical procedures involved.
So it was blindly, so to speak, that most of us embarked upon the adventure, all of us being connected with one key tool set up and administered by the Commission: the DiscoverEU Facebook group bringing the winners from all 28 countries together, enabling them to share their difficulties, findings and even to meet up with each other during their respective trips.
A unique opportunity
I signed up with three friends, and together we were selected to receive this much talked about Interrail pass. We went for 2 weeks from 22 July to 5 August with the flex pass. Whilst the competition regulations provided a visit to a maximum of 4 countries, we realised that the flexible pass actually allowed us to visit more. In fact, the pass, valued at 255€ gave access to 7 days of train travel within a one month period, in all 30 Interrail partner countries. Leaving from Toulouse, we were able to visit Geneva, Milan, Rijeka, Split, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Budapest and Vienna where we stayed for anything from less than 24 hours to 3 days.
A lot of time was spent in transit, of course, with some journeys lasting up to 15 hours, but the great advantage of the train is that it allows you to discover the country in a new way, disappearing into remote places that sometimes reveal breathtaking landscapes. Additionally, we chose night trains for the longest journeys which enabled us to catch up on some sleep, as well as saving some money on the number of nights spent in accommodation.
You clearly can’t expect to sleep in the best of conditions, especially when you haven’t paid the 30 or 40€ reservation fee required to obtain a precious bunk.
It can, however, sometimes lead to new encounters with other passengers or lively discussions with Slovenian inspectors. Moreover, the journeys sometimes included some ridiculous connections. Getting off a train at night in an isolated station lost in the Croatian backlands and waiting 5 hours for the next train playing card games alongside a homeless person, for example, is what makes up these unprecedented yet unforgettable experiences.
Going on an interrail trip, in my opinion, is an experience you should try at least once in your life, as it is far from the same old “plane/hotel”, and it pushes us to approach others, to fend for yourself when dealing with mishaps, to go to places that aren’t very touristy, and finally to discover Europe in a new light. With regards to the Commission’s decision to only select participants that are 18 years old, I find that such an experience is a great springboard into adult life in terms of self-reliance and dealing with things.
Accessibility that needs modifying
However, it appears there is a need to put things into perspective when it comes to the “accessible to all” side of the trip highlighted by the Union in the context of this competition. Even if transport is often the most important part of the budget for such a trip, you can’t overlook food and accommodation.
Choosing the most basic option each time, you need to budget for between 150-300€ for one week abroad. This could sound like nothing for some people, but it’s not always accessible for high school or university students, for whom this gift could turn sour quickly as all the necessary expenses accumulate, especially when you have to make seat reservations that covered by the interrail pass. You need to budget for about €20 for each reservation. Many of the winners expressed their disappointment about the additional costs on the Facebook group.
The #DiscoverEU programme therefore allowed me to really picture a Europe without borders, through its landscapes, its languages, its currencies, its inhabitants and its traditions. I am all the more convinced that the EU is full of resources but suffers the curse of ignorance from its citizens, sustained by limited communication from the EU, and the difficulty of speaking with one voice. It is therefore these practical initiatives that the EU are sorely lacking in order to achieve its main goal of (re)uniting citizens.This article was first published on thenewfederalist.eu, the magazine of the Young European Federalists. The content they produce is also published in French, Spanish, German, Dutch and Italian.