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Daily RC Article 177

Bridging Nations: The Channel Tunnel and the Evolution of Anglo-French Relations


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The Channel Tunnel has had an environmental and economical impact not just on Nord-Pas de Calais, France and Kent, Britain but also on other areas of Europe. … The history of proposals to build a fixed link through the 27 kms of sea separating the UK from France can be traced back to 1751. No matter how elaborate the arguments for or against the Channel Tunnel, the United Kingdom has always had to grapple with the more profound, psychological question of losing its "island status". This led historians to observe that for the UK, the Channel Tunnel amounted to more than a mere engineering project; it was a "state of mind" describing the UK"s traditional ideological insularity. In France, the attitude towards the Tunnel has always been pragmatic and supportive. It is this mixture of pragmatism and nationalism, coupled with the complexity and financial commitment needed to build a fixed link, that makes the Channel Tunnel a fascinating case-study of Anglo-French relations in modern times.

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In 1751, a Frenchman named Nicholas Desmaret presented a report to Louis XV which claimed that Britain and France were at one time geographically linked by a spit of land. Desmaret"s report suggested that a direct link between these two great European powers could be restored by building a bridge or a tunnel. However, Desmaret"s ideas amounted to little more than an expression of interest. The first serious proposal to construct a fixed link between Britain and France was designed by Albert Mathieu-Favier in 1802. The Peace of Amiens, signed in 1802, temporarily ended Britain"s conflict with Napoleonic France and enabled Mathieu-Favier to pursue his plans for a tunnel under the Channel. Mathieu-Favier proposed a tunnel for stagecoaches to be built in two 15 km sections on either side of an artificial island constructed on the Varne Sandbank, an area of shallow water halfway between England and France…

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Mathieu-Favier was successful in bringing his project to the attention of Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1802 was the first Consul of France. Napoleon was impressed with the project and at the Peace of Amiens discussed the fixed link idea with the Whig leader, Charles James Fox. Both Napoleon and Fox supported Mathieu-Favier"s project…Notwithstanding this initial enthusiasm for a cross-Channel fixed-link, the project was abandoned following the resumption of war between England and France in 1803.

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From Napoleon’s time to the mid-19th century, more proposals for a fixed link appeared. Geotechnical investigations evidenced the presence of chalk strata adequate for tunnelling. In 1839, de Gamond, a Frenchman, performed the first hydrographical surveys on the Channel. In the 1880s, undersea tunnelling started at England and France, but was stopped for political reasons. In 1974, a tunnel scheme was stopped for political reasons on the British side.

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In 1979, the European Channel Tunnel Group initiated studies for various private railway tunnel schemes. A competition was organized by the French and British governments in 1985. Four main projects were submitted: Euroroute, a hybrid solution of a bridge-tunnel-bridge, Europont, a suspended bridge, Transmanche Express, four bored tunnels allowing rail and road traffic, and Eurotunnel, a rail shuttle service for road vehicles. The concession to build and operate the fixed link across the Channel was awarded to France-Manche and Channel Tunnel Group subsequently to become Eurotunnel and Transmanche Link in 1986.

The Channel Tunnel, connecting the UK and France, has had far-reaching impacts on the environment and economy. The historical proposals for this fixed link date back to 1751, with the UK grappling not only with engineering challenges but also with the psychological impact of losing its "island status." In contrast, France has taken a pragmatic and supportive stance. The Channel Tunnel serves as a fascinating case study of Anglo-French relations, showcasing a mix of pragmatism, nationalism, and the complexities of financial commitment. The journey from early proposals in the 18th century, interrupted by wars, to the successful 1986 concession awarded to Eurotunnel reflects the historical evolution of this significant cross-Channel connection.
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