IT IS Sunday night at the rooftop bar of the Wombat’s Hostelin Berlin and the tequila is starting to flow. But there is still time for aquick chat about the European Union’s common agricultural policy. Drew, asparky 20-year-old University of London student, cannot abide the “mad”subsidies the EU pays to its farmers. “I’m an anarchist.” And yet he thinksBritain would be foolish to vote to leave the European Union in the referendumthe government will hold by the end of 2017.
Drew and his19-year-old girlfriend Emma, like millions of young Europeans before them, arespending the summer in a carefree haze of travel and fun, the fruits of the freedomafforded by an Interrail pass. Launched in 1972 to mark the 50th anniversary ofan international rail industry group, Interrail was a single ticket thatgranted access to a large part of Europe’s rail network, turning much of thecontinent west of the Iron Curtain into a playground for youngsters as theyhopped on and off trains, guzzling cheap booze and meeting like-minded soulsalong the way. Over the years Interrail’s popularity has wanted in the face ofcompeting entertainments like low-cost flights; sales peaked in the mid-1980sat over 300,000 passes a year. Yet numbers have picked up in recent years; lastyear 230,000 Europeans bought a pass, almost one-quarter of them from Britain.And for many of the young travelers whom your correspondent met during afive-day jaunt through Europe, the wide-eyed rite-of-passage quality of anInterrail trip appears as strong as ever.
Interrail’s spirit of openness longseemed to foreshadow developments within Europe itself, as walls tumbled,borders disappeared and currencies melted into one another (Interrail expandedto the ex-communist east in 1994). In today’s more troubled Europe, though,tested by financial and migration crises, the summer rail adventure has takenon new connotations. Europe’s young have borne the brunt of recent economicwoes: across the EU unemployment for those under 25, although dropping, stillstand at over 20%, and in Spain and Greece around half the young workforce isjobless. In the early 2000s the median income of Europeans between 16 and 24was growing faster than that of other generations; today the reverse is true.Home and car ownership are down and university debt is up. Particularly insouthern Europe, many are facing the prospect of a standard of living worsethan that of their parents.
Yet this generation is better travelledand educated than any that came before. Around two-thirds of school-leavers acrossthe EU’s 28 member states enter higher education today; just 18% did in the(much smaller) European Economic Community in 1972. Jim Hadfield, who runs theCircus Hostel in Berlin, says his guests know far more about the city’s historythan when he arrived in 1998.
Asked what the EUmeans to them, 57% of Europeans between 15 and 24 years old cite the freedom totravel, work and study anywhere they like. To many young Interrailers it seemsthe natural order of things; the border checks they encounter on leaving theEU, at times delivered with an impatient rap on the cabin window as theirsleeper train enters the Balkans, arrive as a shock and are seen as almostimpertinent.
Yet in recent weeksthe travelers have in some parts of Europe encountered a sharper reminder thatthe freedoms they enjoy are not shared by everyone. Hamish, a 24-year-oldBritish chemical-engineering graduate, says his “jawdropped” when he alighted atBudapest’s Keleti station to find himself confronted with the sight ofthousands of migrants, mainly Syrians, waiting to be granted permission toboard trains to Austria and Germany. Gregor, a thoughtful Bavarian studentInterrailing from Hungary to Greece, found himself thinking about the plight ofthe refugees whose journey he was making in reverse. As the child of Polishparents who fled to Germany in 1988 he notes that he has more reason than manyto cherish the freedoms Europe can offer.
Others fear what themigrant crisis reveals about their fellow citizens. Katharina, a 21-year-oldmathematics student from Vienna travelling throughout the Balkans, is notworried about her own future. (At 10.8%, Austria’s youth-unemployment rate isthe third lowest in the EU.) But the xenophobic reaction of many of her fellowAustrians to the refugees spilling into the country makes her worry, she says,that one day she might no longer feel at home there.
Similarly Nico and Isa, who havetravelled from Germany’s east to visit a Star Wars exhibition in Cologne, citeantagonism towards foreigners as their main reason for pessimism about Europe.The fence erected by Hungary’s government along its border with Serbia, saysNico, is an unhappy reminder of the old east German state.
Like most Germans thepair were surprised to hear that much of Europe admires Germany’s handling ofthe refugee crisis. Yet not everyone takes such a liberal view. Julien, aFrench engineer making his way through the Balkans to Turkey, explains that hepities the refugees but doesn’t think Europe can handle them all. Soonafterwards he slips into talk of Jewish conspiracies and the virtues of MarineLe Pen, the French far-right leader.
Interrailers aredisproportionately educated and affluent; a multi-country pass starts at Euro281 ($315). Yet they are hardly immune to economic difficulty. Hamish isfrustrated to find himself living with his parents again as he prepares tobegin another degree and accumulate more debt, having failed to land the rightjob in London. Szyman, a Polish musician encountered next to his double bass ona crowded train bound for Berlin, says he could tell something was up a fewyears ago when his Dutch orchestra saw its public subsidy cut by Euro 1m a yearand was forced to lay him off. Having sneaked into the first-class section of atrain to Prague, four mechanical-engineering undergraduates from Aberdeenheaded for careers in the offshore oil-and-gas industry are more interested indrinking cheap Czech beer than fretting about their careers. But one confidesthat the drop in the oil price has cast a shadow over his prospects.
The EU’s greatestcheerleaders today are to be found among those who cannot fully share itsbenefits. Your correspondent met Syrian refugees at Belgrade’s railway stationwho expressed their excitement at the prospect of rejoining family in Dortmund,and young Turks on their way to Prague who contrast the freedoms of Europe withthe creeping authoritarianism of their own government.