By Gerry Kiely. Head of Representation, European Commission Representation in Ireland
A shared sense of belonging always requires personal connections. The European project is no exception. Every friendship, every bond between people is a concrete step towards a stronger shared European identity.
This is the idea that DiscoverEU builds on. This summer thousands of 18-year-olds travelled across the EU. Supported by a free travel pass, some 20,000 young people embarked on a journey to explore Europe, mainly by eco-friendly means of transport like trains, buses and ferries. They learned about Europe’s cultural heritage, about its history, about others – and about themselves. They followed in the footsteps of 30,000 young people who have already discovered our continent in this way, experiencing first-hand what it means to be European.
A big difference
This new initiative has now been running for just over a year, and it has already started to make a big difference. Nearly 275,000 young people applied for the almost 50,000 travel passes available over three application rounds in 2018 and 2019. From Ireland 2,698 young people applied for these travel passes.
DiscoverEU shows what is possible when a good idea meets political ambition and creative, open-minded people. Hatched in civil society, championed by Members of the European Parliament and put into action by the European Commission in record time, the idea to give 18-year-olds a chance to discover Europe by travelling is a great example of a concrete step that brings young people closer to the European project – and closer to each other.
It is fully in line with the focus the Commission has placed on empowering and investing in young people, along with other new EU initiatives such as the European Solidarity Corps.
For some DiscoverEU participants, it was the first time they travelled without their parents. For all of them, it was a learning experience. Those who have already taken part report that it has helped them to become more engaged and to broaden their horizons.
Many of them say they have gained self-confidence and developed important competences such as foreign-language and intercultural skills, adaptability, resilience and organisational skills. And two thirds state that they would not have been able to finance their travel pass without DiscoverEU,
Building a community
What is more, through this initiative, thousands of travelers have been making new friends and building a community across Europe. Participants who had never met before have linked up on social media, formed groups to travel from city to city or helped each other out by offering a couch for the night.
Building on participants’ feedback and working with stakeholders, the European Commission is working to ensure that DiscoverEU becomes even more open and inclusive. Applying has been made easier, and the Commission is providing tips for budget-friendly travelling and putting a special emphasis on supporting young people with disabilities.
It is also working to build links with Europe-wide networks such as Eurodesk and the Europe Direct Centres as well as local groups to make the initiative better known in cities and towns across Europe – and to help involve those travelling more closely with the communities they are visiting.
But this is only the beginning. To harness the full potential of DiscoverEU, the Commission is seeking to make it an integral part of the Erasmus programme after 2020, with a budget of e700 million. If the European Parliament and Member States agree, about 1.5 million 18-year-olds stand to benefit between 2021 and 2027.
This would open up a real chance to keep developing DiscoverEU, further strengthening its learning dimension – and to make it a stepping stone. One DiscoverEU experience should be only the beginning of a much bigger journey for young people. It should entice them to explore more. Become more engaged in their communities, or go abroad again via other EU programmes.
DiscoverEU is more than about young people going on holidays. It has confirmed that, given the opportunity, young Europeans take responsibility and, by building networks and connections with others, significantly contribute to European integration. These travelers already act as ambassadors for the European idea and show us that while we have our differences, there is much more that unites us than divides us.
Exploring Europe should be the norm for young people, independent of their background, finances, or home city. Young people have a special role in building bridges – bridges that we need more than ever to build a more united, cohesive Europe for the future.
That is why the European Union continues investing and believing in young people – not tomorrow, but today.