Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the May 6, 1994 opening of the Channel Tunnel, retired mining worker Graham Fagg shared his memories of the moment he broke through to meet a French colleague tunnelling from the other side.
By a twist of fate, Fagg voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum yet he sees no contradiction with his act of unification.
“I worked on the Channel Tunnel and done the breakthrough, but I actually voted for Brexit. But I don’t see that it’s incompatible,” the 70-year-old told AFP news agency.
The retiree made history on December 1, 1990, when he and his French counterpart Philippe Cozette, made the junction between their respective parts of the tunnel some 100 metres below sea level.
Less than four years later, on May 6, 1994, Queen Elizabeth II and French president Francois Mitterrand cut the ribbon on the new rail link.
Since then the railway line connecting the south-east of the United Kingdom to the north of France has been used by almost 430 million passengers and 86 million vehicles.
For many Britons, the tunnel has come to symbolise the country’s integration with the continent as a member of the European Union.
‘Brexit won’t drive us apart’
Fagg said he supported joining the European Economic Community — the forerunner to the EU — in a 1975 referendum but had not envisaged it would become a political union.
“We voted for a trade deal,” he explained. “I can’t remember anybody ever saying to me, ‘we’re going to turn it into a federal Europe. We’re going to set all the rules and you’ve got to obey them’.”
A lifelong resident of the southeast English port town Dover, where 62% of people backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum, Fagg insisted he wants close future ties with Europe.
The grandfather-of-four has forged an enduring friendship with Cozette, visiting the Frenchman’s home near Calais on several occasions.
“I don’t really speak English and he doesn’t speak French at all, but still we understand each other,” Cozette said.
The 66-year-old argued centuries of increasing cross-Channel cooperation could survive Brexit.
“The links between the French and English coasts have always existed,” Cozette said. “I do not think it will drive the British and French apart,” he told AFP.
Remembering a ‘historical moment’
Recalling the breakthrough, Graham Fagg said he was most concerned about not hurting Cozette by drilling the rock.
Once the hole was large enough, the two men shook hands under the cheers and applause from workers and officials looking on, before posing for pictures.
“Graham Fagg greeted me in me French: ‘Bonjour, mon ami’. I told him in English ‘Welcome to France,’ since we were on the French side,” the Frenchman recalled.
Cozette said his “pride” and his “joy” mingled with “a little bit of sadness because the work we had done for several years was stopping”.
Fagg, for his part, was impressed by the abundance of food and drink planned to celebrate the event on the French side.
“They had champagne, wine, food, and we only had tea, coffee and water – maybe a sandwich if you were lucky!”
Fagg dedicated five years of his life to the tunnel’s construction between 1986 and 1991 and then worked in maintenance for Eurotunnel for nearly 15 years from the early 2000s.
He recalled a tough working environment amongst the heavy-drinking British miners, who were in a race to reach the middle of the tunnel before their French counterparts and were paid on a bonus scheme.
“The faster we went, the more money we got,” he said.
The moment that would ultimately become a recurrent landmark in Fagg’s life was purely down to chance, with his name selected at random by bosses.
“I thought I was going up to the office to get told off about something, but in actual fact, they said ‘tomorrow you’re doing the breakthrough’,” he added. “I was a bit surprised because it was my day off and I had other plans.”
A viable business
One of the biggest engineering projects ever undertaken in Europe, building the tunnel involved more than 12,000 workers. Today, it remains the longest undersea tunnel in the world at nearly 38 kilometres (24 miles) and has been named one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Fagg is most pleased that after years of financial problems it is now a viable business. “It’s a great engineering feat,” he said. “It’s good that people enjoy it.”
Fagg, who has been married nearly 50 years, survived a prostate cancer diagnosis six years ago which led to his retirement.
He admitted feeling nostalgic on Wednesday revisiting the spot where tunnelling first started, stopping at a plaque overlooking the Channel honouring the 10 workers who died during the project.
“It was a historical moment,” he recollected of his famous handshake. “The whole project was a historical moment. It involved five years of my life, so it’s going to remain with you.”