Vive l'Amour Across Channel

British, French areas at either end of Chunnel team up as one region

The county of Kent, a sleepy backwater known as "the garden of England," faces France just 21 miles away across the English Channel. "This used to be the place where England ended," says Kent official Tim Byles. "Now, for us, it is where Europe begins."

Kent's future lies in a hole - the Channel Tunnel, or "Chunnel" - that now whisks people, cars, and goods undersea between Britain and France in less than 35 minutes.

"The Chunnel makes it possible for us to ignore geography and begin regarding ourselves and our French friends across the water as the people of a single region," says Mr. Byles, Kent's director of economic planning.

There is, however, more to the new spirit of enterprise now afoot in Kent than the "fixed link," which opened for traffic two years ago and already carries upwards of 40 percent of cross-Channel traffic.

In Nord-Pas de Calais, the French region across the English Channel from Kent, officials are actively promoting what the European Union calls cross-frontier development between member states.

Together, Kent, with a population of 1.5 million, and Nord-Pas de Calais with four times that number, want to attract development funds from the EU, and investment money from overseas, to a region the French call Transmanche (meaning Across the Channel).

The closer they work together and are perceived by the outside world as one region, says Herve Foercroix, an adviser to the council of Nord-Pas de Calais, "the greater their clout, Europe-wide."

Five years ago Kent and Nord-Pas de Calais began marketing the Transmanche region as a single tourist area. A would-be tourist in, say, the United States inquiring about visiting the French port of Calais, or Maidstone in Kent, will be shown brochures in which the attractions of the two areas are described together.

"This means that someone wanting to visit Kent will be reminded that by taking a trip through the Channel Tunnel or by taking a cross-Channel ferry, he or she will also be able to visit this part of France, as well as see the sights here," Mr. Foercroix says. Inland from Calais are such attractive cities as St. Omer and Lille. Nearly 80 percent of Nord-Pas de Calais's coastline is the Cote d'Opale nature reserve - a strip of unspoiled beaches and rolling sand dunes.

A tourist traveling from France to the British side of the Channel and landing at the port of Dover is immediately a 20-minute drive from the city of Canterbury, famous for its cathedral, and an hour away from Hastings, where in 1066 the invading King William conquered the defenders of England.

From next year, says Jeremy Rand, European projects coordinator of the Kent County Council, package holidays will be available featuring combined visits to places in Kent, such as Leeds Castle, and attractions on the French side of the Channel - for example Nausicaa , the National Sea Centre, a few miles south of Calais at Boulogne.

As the smaller partner in the Transmanche cooperative venture, Kent is keen to assert its interests in relation to those of Nord-Pas de Calais. To put its objectives into better focus, the County Council invited Sir John Harvey-Jones, a former chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries and a leading industrial consultant, to offer advice.

He didn't mince his words. "There is a total lack of cohesiveness in Kent's approach to the [issues] it is facing," Sir John said. "What you need to do is concentrate, over a number of years, on building up your identity and pride."

Instead of taking this advice to mean asserting itself in an English context, however, Kent decided to strike out in a European direction.

Kent Enterprise Office was established to attract businesses and investment capital to the county. Kent Council appointed a "corporate European team" to promote a range of European contacts, with the focus on Nord-Pas de Calais.

One of the first fruits of the new approach was a cash grant of L6 million ($9 million) by the European Commission in Brussels. Much of the money was spent on research to determine regional needs.

Later this year a further $21 million of EU money will become available. Projects likely to benefit include youth exchanges between the two parts of the Transmanche region, cross-frontier cooperation between museums, art galleries, local choirs and orchestras in Kent and Nord-Pas de Calais, and educational projects.

Kent County Council has already successfully launched a French language-teaching project called Pilote, now widely used in schools across the county.

For Kent, which has tended to lose out in the past on funding by the British government, it makes sense to link up with Nord-Pas de Calais. The county, says Jon Barrett, head of inward investment at the Kent Enterprise Office, has suffered from "being taken for granted by London," particularly in the provision of roads and railtrack. By creating close ties with Nord-Pas de Calais, he believes, Kent will benefit economically. It will also create bridges between the past and the future.

"We will remain the garden of England," he says, "but we will also come to be known as the front garden of Europe."

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