Fantasized long before existing, the tunnel under the sleeve crystallizes the tensions which tear the two cousins who face each other and the links which unite them. Never agree but condemned to get along. “The combination of French enthusiasm and British pragmatism”, had summed up Queen Elizabeth II so well by inaugurating the tunnel with President François Mitterrand on May 6, 1994. Today, it is no longer the tunnel that divides the French and the British, but the train that uses it.
Or rather who borrowed it. Because the health crisis has almost reduced traffic to nothing. Only one train a day passes there, and it is 80% empty. Eurostar, the operating company, saw its turnover divided by 20 between the second and fourth quarters of 2020. It only survives on its cash, which will be exhausted in May. A situation even more serious than that of the airlines. However, these are helped in all countries, as well as airports. This is why London First, a lobby of British industrialists, joined the management of the company, based in London, in appealing to Her Majesty’s Government for help.
But this one is made pull the ear. Why rush to help a French company? Because Eurostar is a British subsidiary of SNCF, at 55%, and of the Belgian railway company (5%). The United Kingdom sold its 40% stake in 2015 to Caisse des Dépôts du Québec and to a British infrastructure fund, Hermes. These shareholders have already injected 200 million euros, but that will not be enough. Hence the call for help. Will Boris Johnson hear it? In a vitriolic editorial, the Financial Times advises him not to move. According to him, the business has cost the British taxpayer dear, and the state, by selling, has deprived itself of the comfortable dividends which began to be paid soon after. Moreover, it is not an infrastructure, like the tunnel itself, and the company could therefore be easily replaced if it were to fail.
However, should we drop a healthy company into the field of honor of the crisis, the victim of an event that we hope is temporary, at the risk of sidelining its employees and disrupting this essential and ecological communication channel? between continental Europe and England? All European governments support their businesses. But what to do with the foreign subsidiaries? It is on this ambiguity that the French and British governments are surfing. Eurostar will be saved but, as with Brexit, we will have to wait until the last minute. These two will never change.