The sceptred isle has long been, in the words of William Shakespeare, a “precious stone set in the silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall.” In an attempt to end Britain’s isolation and invade the island, Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 ordered a French mining engineer to draw up plans for a tunnel to be built underneath the English Channel. The tunnel was never built, but now that vision is about to become a reality. In 1984 French President François Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approved in principle the idea of a fixed link between Britain and France. And after their scheduled joint announcement this week of a chosen design, the two leaders planned to finalize the agreement in February.
The project represents a calculated political gamble on the part of both leaders. Any of the four design proposals considered—a bridge, a combined bridge and tunnel, a rail tunnel and a combined car and rail tunnel—would create at least 30,000 jobs. That is a particularly alluring prospect for Mitterrand. His ruling Socialist party is facing parliamentary elections this March—and running at a mere 27 per cent in the popularity polls. And with Britain’s next general election due by 1988, Thatcher also has to regain support for her Conservative party, which has slipped dramatically as unemployment has risen to almost 13 per cent—more than double the rate when she assumed office in 1979.
The enthusiasm of the two leaders for a channel link was enhanced by the fact that the project is planned as a private venture. Eleven years ago the Labour government then in power in Britain blocked earlier plans by a Tory administration for a tunnel because of spiralling costs and environmental concerns. This time private financiers and industrialists tendered four rival bids, with the winner to pay the construction costs and operate the link.
Still, the French and the British have long been divided on what form the link should take. The French favored a $4.7-billion proposal by the Channel Tunnel Group—an AngloFrench consortium—for a rail-only tunnel for conventional trains as well
as shuttle trains to carry motor vehicles. Such a tunnel would be a showcase for French train technology, considered the most advanced in Europe. But the British argued that a rail-only system would be vulnerable to strikes by the railway unions. As a result, London recommended acceptance of a $5-billion Channel Expressway bid, with rail and road tunnels.
Meanwhile, in the picturesque English county of Kent, the probable British location of a tunnel entrance, some residents say they fear that the link will disrupt the environment.
Said Gwendoline Linch, whose 50-acre dairy farm lies on the edge of a proposed railway yard for tunnel-bound trains:
“A surveyor came last summer and told us there would be a purchase order for part of our land. The noise and pollution would be awful.” And although the opposition Labour Party approves a link, its members have said that they will withhold support to protest Thatcher’s refusal to hold a public inquiry into the scheme.
As well, Flexilink, a coalition of French and British ferry and port au-
thorities, has opened a $3.4-million campaign publicizing what spokesmen say are the potential weaknesses of the plan. According to a Flexilink spokesman, a tunnel link could destroy the 26-mile ferry business between Calais and Dover—and up to 40,000 port and ferry jobs on both sides of the channel. Said Jonathan Sloggett, Flexilink chairman and managing director of the Dover Harbour Board: “If the ferries are driven out of business, the effect would be disastrous.” Added Calais Chamber of Commerce Director Guy Flamangt: ‘‘It is a completely useless project.”
Critics also point out that the estimated construction costs do not g take into account the I possibility of overruns. § Indeed, costs for the last 1/1 major Anglo-French project, the supersonic Concorde jet, soared from an initial $200 million to $3 billion when the project was completed in 1976. If the same fate befalls the tunnel, France and Great Britain may be forced to contribute public funds to save a cherished project.
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