By Tom Brake
Just as the Government’s Brexit plans start severing the UK’s links with the EU, Britain’s young people have voted with their feet, and taken advantage of a fantastic new chance to get to know Europe.
This summer nearly 2,000 British 18-year olds were given a free Interrail pass by the European Parliament, snapping up every pass available. It’s a trial of a larger rollout which, if implemented, will see all 5.4 million 18-year-olds living in the European Union eligible for the free pass. It will mean that young people from all backgrounds will be able to travel freely around the EU, to discover the diverse corners of Europe and get to know those from different Member States.
The pass will help build a sense of EU community and belonging. The EU referendum result showed that, after decades of unremitting negative coverage, too many people in the UK had lost sight of the positive vision of Europeans working together. The pass seeks to help restore this sense of belonging for young citizens across the EU.
Just across a currently invisible border there couldn’t be more of a contrast. A whopping 85% of Irish citizens say they feel that they are EU citizens, whereas only 57% of UK citizens do. For Irish citizens, joining the EU is often seen as a major turning point in Ireland’s fortunes. Their contemporary identity is one that is interwoven with the EU. Ireland’s accession is taught in schools, and the EU flag is seen across both urban and rural areas, highlighting the numerous projects the EU has funded. The benefits of being part of the EU are much more apparent than they are in the UK, where decades of scape-goating and misinformation have bred a culture of mistrust and a sense that the EU is “other”.
This negative image of the EU has been pervasive for decades and it seemed as though overturning it might be an impossible task. But the take-up of the Interrail pass at a period when Brexit is in the fore of many people’s minds, is evidence that this might not be the case. It is well known that between 70 and 75% of 18- to 25-year-olds voted to remain, and recent polls suggest that this sentiment has not wavered. Now, 1.4 million people have turned 18 since the referendum and more and more of them are aware of the benefits and opportunities we have as part of the EU.
The free Interrail pass is a small drop in the ocean of the many opportunities young people will be denied if we do leave the EU. We should be moving towards a world with fewer borders; tearing down walls instead of building them. We should build stronger links; pressing for deeper cooperation with our close neighbours.
That vision was at the heart of the EU’s foundation and is at the heart of it today. It is a vision we should do everything to be a part of. That is why I am fighting to give the people the final say on the Brexit deal, with the option to remain in the EU.