AP Exclusive: History-making tunnelers look beyond Brexit

DOVER, England (AP) — One tunneling from France, the other digging from Britain, the two men smashed with pummeling jackhammers through the last slivers of rock separating their nations.

Through the newly created hole, Graham Fagg, of Dover, England, and Philippe Cozette, of Calais, France, enthusiastically grasped each other’s outstretched hands. Then, they posed with their nations’ flags for photos that broadcast a message of friendship to the world. The French and the British, neighbors until then separated by the seas and with a long history of war and rivalry but also of alliances and admiration, were now physically and permanently joined, seemingly closer than ever.

How poignant and instructive those images now look, as Brexit drives Britain and France apart.

On that historic day on Dec. 1, 1990, in their hard hats and under billions of tons of rock and seawater deep under the English Channel, neither Fagg, Cozette, nor anyone could have foreseen that the ever-closer bonds of unity and shared ambitions embodied by the newly dug Eurotunnel would unravel in less than 30 years.

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“A fabulous moment,” Cozette says of that watershed that turned Fagg and him into symbols of cooperation and the inexorable march of human technology and will. “On our side, there were tears.”

“History made,” Fagg recalls. “Time passes so quickly, doesn’t it?”

Because they were such important protagonists in Anglo-French history, and because Britain’s departure Friday from the European Union represents another momentous milestone for both their nations, The Associated Press brought Cozette and Fagg back together this week.

Because their unique story never gets old. And because it offers pointers about where France and Britain might go next.

In the cosy front room of Fagg’s Dover home, not underground this time, the men howled with laughter as they watched archive footage of themselves vigorously digging their way to their first meeting, nearly 30 years ago as they joined the two parts of the underwater tunnel into one.

Cozette, now 66, recalled how he got Fagg’s first name wrong, saying “welcome to France, Bob,” as they shook hands through the opening.

Later, in celebrations at Dover Castle, “We sang ‘La Marseillaise’ and ‘God Save the Queen,'” he said.

“French and English together. It was nice, super.”

Fagg, now 71, recalled the Champagne, wine and nibbles that the French plied him with, such a contrast to fare on the British side: “Tea, coffee and water and sandwiches.”

Because the British tunnelers weren’t allowed to smoke in their half of the tunnel, they’d head over to the French side to light up.

And the takeaway from this reunion, Cozette and Fagg’s first in nearly five years?

Perhaps this: Brexit is certainly a new chapter in ties between France and Britain, but it most certainly is not the end.

In part, they both agreed, because of the tunnel they helped build.

“The British made a choice. You have to respect that,” Cozette said. “But the links that have been created over centuries between our two countries, and in particular our two regions, because of their proximity but also because of the tunnel, they are very important for me.”

“I think we’ll get used to it,” he added. “Things will go back to the way they were, before Britain was part of Europe.”

In 1975, and like a large majority of Britons, Fagg voted “Yes” in a referendum that asked whether Britain should stay in the European Community, the EU’s predecessor.

But when Britain was asked again in 2016, Fagg then voted with the small majority that wanted out.

The EU, he feels, has become too big and overbearing, “a colossus, a very expensive colossus.”

But, on the ground, Fagg is not expecting massive change.

“Before we joined (the EU), people still used to go to France, they used to come from France to here,” Fagg said. “I don’t think it’s going to be any different.”

And three decades after their first handshake, and like Britain and France, Cozette and Fagg are adding new twists to their story, too.

Unbeknownst in advance to anyone, Fagg used the reunion to spring a surprise on his French friend.

In their first encounter in the tunnel, Fagg had been embarrassed when Cozette presented him with a gift: a piece of chalk dug up from the tunnel on the French side.

“I attached a red, white and blue ribbon to it, the colors of England and France,” Cozette recalled.

Fagg hadn’t had time to prepare a gift of his own. Only the previous night, at the end of his shift, had his boss told Fagg that he’d been selected to make the breakthrough the next morning.

“I said, ‘You’re bloody joking,'” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’ve got plans for tomorrow.'”

The response from his boss: “’You’re going to have to change them.'”

So when Cozette had given him the chunk of chalk, Fagg in return gifted the Frenchman the only thing he had handy: his identification token that all the tunnelers had to carry, like soldiers’ dog tags, so they could be identified if they were involved in an accident.

“I still have his token at home,” Cozette said.

Now, it was Cozette’s turn to be caught empty handed.

His turn to be embarrassed when Fagg presented him with a stone, encrusted with crystals, that he’d dug up from the beginnings of another cross-Channel tunnel in 1974 that was later scrapped.

Fagg couldn’t hide his delight as Cozette squirmed.

“I’ve been waiting all them years!” Fagg said.

Friendship, it seems, always has another episode up its sleeve.

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