Leading Article: Tunnelling towards foreign territory

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THERE are people who believe that the Channel tunnel will never open for normal business. Even if the testing programme is completed, they argue, there will be bomb threats, or the wrong sort of water on the line, or strikes and demonstrations that happen to find the tunnel a convenient focus. And if all those problems can be surmounted, fares will need to be so high to repay the debt that most people will still opt for the old alternatives of sea or air.

Members of this school of thought will be cheered by the news of further delays to Le Shuttle. For a while the prophets of failure had been worried. Only the strongest did not allow their faith to be shaken by the scheduling of the official opening for 6 May. Now they can breathe again, confident that each delay will spawn further hold-ups until breaking point is reached.

Their attitude resonates even among Britons who look forward to the tunnel as a boring but convenient utility. As our politics sadly demonstrate, the British remain islanders at heart. The tunnel threatens our sense of identity, violates our integrity and breaches our sense of historical continuity. We do not seriously believe we are about to be overwhelmed by rabid animals or hostile armies, or that significantly more foreigners will arrive than would do so by other means, but nevertheless it will feel deeply different to be connected, even sub-aquatically, to foreign shores.

Many people also feel guilty pleasure at seeing grandiloquence brought down. While other countries relish grand projects, the British suspect them. If the tunnel had opened on schedule and at the forecast price, the national psyche would have been disturbed almost as much as by ceasing to be an island. So a vote of thanks is due to Eurotunnel: we do not have to re-think ourselves quite yet.

Meanwhile, the Swiss are planning to build a longer tunnel (57km) for about half the price to carry lorries on trains under the St Gotthard Pass. They do these things with much less fuss. On their piggy-back trains, cars simply drive on to open trucks, leaving drivers to gaze at the tunnel walls, and they cannot recall a single accident. They will not even bother with a service tunnel. But then their sense of violation is the opposite to ours. They are being overwhelmed by foreign trucks, from which the tunnel will provide relief.