World's longest rail tunnel opens in Switzerland, boosting EU transit and ties

In a tense time of heightened nationalism and fortified borders in the European Union, its leaders are coming together to celebrate Switzerland's new Gotthard Base Tunnel. 

Peter Klauzner/Reuters
Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Switzerland's President Johann Schneider-Ammann, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's President Francois Hollande speak to one another while travelling through the Gotthard Rail Tunnel, the longest tunnel in the world, on its opening day, in Pollegio, Switzerland, June 1, 2016.

Switzerland's Gotthard Base Tunnel opened Wednesday as an impressive feat of both engineering and European diplomacy. 

Costing 12.2 billion Swiss francs (over $12.35 billion) and requiring almost two decades of construction, the Gotthard tunnel will provide the first-ever high-speed rail link under the Swiss Alps, connecting northern and southern Europe. 

At 35 miles long, it surpasses Japan's Seikan Tunnel, the previous world record-holder, by almost two miles, and the "Chunnel" between England and France by about four miles. 

Running on a flat track 1.4 miles under the Earth's surface, Gotthard will cut 45 minutes off the total travel time between Zurich and Lugano. When it opens to the public in December, 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains will travel through the underground tunnel each day. 

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, but "the EU railway network will get a major boost from the shortcut through the Alps," the Associated Press reports, especially between Germany and Italy, on either side of Switzerland. 

"The new tunnel fits in the European railway freight corridor, which links Rotterdam and Genoa," said Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann. "Aside from saving time, more merchandise can be carried through the Alps."

The physical connection between western European countries may help bridge a more figurative connection, as well. While the Gotthard tunnel does not solve the migrant crisis – or even touch on it – it may prove to be a unifying innovation between EU leaders during a time of strained relations.

"Today's wall builders aren't fortifying borders to stop armored columns or armies on horseback," writes Simon Mountlake for The Christian Science Monitor. "Their targets are primarily migrants: people seeking to move from one country to another, driven by fear or drawn by opportunity. Their construction speaks to an era of insecurity, a walled-in world in which the fault times are political and economic." 

Due to ongoing wars, millions of migrants – primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – have flooded into the European Union within the past year. EU ministers approved a disputed quota plan in September that redistributes 120,000 migrants from the especially taxed countries of Italy, Greece, and Hungary to other countries including France, Germany, Poland, and Spain, which have been asked to absorb the largest numbers.

Such an exacting and overarching system has created tension in the EU between countries who feel they are doing too much and others they think could be doing more.   

But Gotthard is acting as "a symbol of cross-border cooperation," writes the Guardian. "At a time of rising nationalism and closing borders, European leaders will also hope it can serve as a reminder that the continent can still smash barriers when it manages to pull together."

German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president François Hollande, and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi joined Swiss president Johann Schneider-Ammann for the rail's first trip through the tunnel Wednesday. Opening festivities, which involved a tunnel theme song, will cost just under $9 million, according to The Guardian. 

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