STRASBOURG The EU will look into a plan to give all Europeans a free continental rail pass for their 18th birthday but officials made clear on Tuesday that the idea faces numerous obstacles.
"We admire the boldness and the level of ambition, and we are ready to explore it further," Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc told the European Parliament in a response to a resolution backed by lawmakers, including the main conservative bloc.
They say free InterRail tickets - typically month-long passes letting young people travel across Europe's rail network at will - could rekindle enthusiasm for the European Union and bring youngsters together to counter the rising nationalism seen in Britain's vote to quit the bloc and in many other countries.
"People all around Europe must get to know and learn to cherish each other. Our wish is that as many youngsters as possible...get to know other countries and make new friends," said Manfred Weber, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel who leads the biggest group in the EU legislature.
He acknowledged it would not be easy and require cooperation from rail operators. Bulc said the Commission, the EU executive, would look at the cost and possible funding sources.
A summer rite of passage for millions of Europeans since the 1970s, the InterRail system is now used by some 300,000 people a year and costs those under 26 years old 479 euros ($536) for a full month.
With 5 million or more Europeans turning 18 each year, the potential cost and strain on the rail system in popular destinations, could be immense. One option, Bulc said, could be to limit the issue of the birthday passes via a lottery.
(Reporting by Julia Fioretti and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels)