Spanning English Channel: spirit willing, but method disputed. Wary of union militancy, Britons prefer road-rail link

On Monday, French President Franois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher are scheduled to meet in the northern French city of Lille to confer their blessings on one of four competing plans to build a fixed link spanning the English Channel. Ever since Napoleon first proposed the idea in 1802, dozens of projects have been launched, all to vanish like the legendary Channel fog.

At Monday's meeting, the two leaders seem certain to reaffirm their commitment to press ahead. But it is unclear whether they will be able to select a specific plan.

Britain and France, which for centuries have glared at each other across the English Channel, look to the proposed fixed cross-channel link as the most concrete symbol of a rapprochement between two once implacable foes.

More than that, France hopes the fixed Channel link will make Britain more European, while British travelers look forward to a quick and convenient way to escape to a sunnier continent.

But, while the Anglo-French spirit is willing, and the engineering ability is available to bridge the 22-mile watery corridor which has kept European invaders out of Britain, the two governments cannot yet agree on how they will actually link up.

With the scheduled Jan. 20 dual announcement of President Franois Mitterrand of France and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher only days away, the disagreement has become an act of political brinkmanship.

In each case, France's preference for a rail-only link and Britain's insistence on a rail and road link represent political, economical, or philosophical differences, rather than technical hitches.

Prime Minister Thatcher or ``Miss Maggie'' as she is being lampooned in a pop tune currently at the top of the French charts, is not emotionally on the same track as President Mitterrand when it comes to a rail-only link.

Mrs. Thatcher does not like trains and doesn't travel on them. A rail-only link arouses her undisguised anti-union instinct, that a rail link could result in travelers being held ransom to union demands. In Britain, railway workers are second only to coal miners when it comes to union militancy.

By contrast, Mitterand's socialist government is sold on the rail option, reflecting French pride in its high-speed rail system. Politically in trouble at home, Mitterrand feels a rail-only link will endear him to French workers as well as boosting the depressed economy in France's northwest region.

French officials also have serious environmental doubts about the road tunnel section of the rail and road plan, because of the challenges in providing adequate ventilation.

The fixed link is expected to benefit trade on both sides of the Channel, but the idea of such a link has caught the imagination of the British far more than the French. Yet British enthusiasm came later, only after Thatcher was satisfied that it would not involve public money.

Although the English Channel has provided something of a security blanket for Britons who feel that it has kept potential invaders like Napoleon and Hitler at bay, as well as keeping out rabies and terrorists, attitudes are changing. Polls show a majority of Britons are in favor of some kind of fixed link, preferably one that includes a road tunnel.

Whatever option is finally adopted, the fixed link will cost at least 2 billion pounds ($2.8 billion) and is expected to be one of the world's major engineering feats. Despite the apparent impasse, Downing Street is saying even at this late stage that ``as far as we are concerned'' there is no reason why the Mitterrand-Thatcher meeting on Monday should not go ahead as planned.

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