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French Connection

Civitas, 4 May 2011

Details emerging about a Brussels-led plan have bewildered both EU supporters and sceptics alike. Not content with efforts to deconstruct member state borders, it now seems that the EU seeks to redraw these lines from scratch, in defiance of historic, linguistic, even geographical boundaries.

Arc Manche

Under the EU’s £1 billion inter-regional agenda, Interreg, Brussels is seeking to redraft the map of Europe, forging new regions from discrete areas of land, seemingly at whim. Most recently, in the wake of plans to rebrand the English Channel ‘the Anglo-French pond’, the EU has declared that southern England in fact belongs to a cross-border French region, ‘Arc Manche’.

Originally contrived some years ago, Arc Manche combines the northern French regions, stretching from Calais to Bretagne, with UK Councils in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Devon. Its existence had long relied on informal cooperation across a web of local authorities in each country, however the ‘region’ was granted its own special assembly in 2005. Intended to enhance the visibility of the network, the Arc Manche Assembly includes representatives from both UK local authorities and French councils, and has been led by French Socialist, Alain Le Vern, since its inauguration.

According to its own mission statement, the purpose of the Assembly is to: “promote the Channel area as a specific and a coherent entity for territorial co-operation at European Union level and to gain recognition from the European Institutions.” This is to be achieved by “joint actions and projects”, delivered through partnerships between both sides of the Channel.

That this conglomeration is in no way “a specific and a coherent entity” beyond the fantasies of the Brussels bureaucracy has failed to dampen the EU’s regional ambitions. Unfortunately, it is these very officials who control the funds required to translate this illusion into reality; and they are not afraid to make significant financial commitments, at our expense, to realise their vision.

For example, £7.6 million has been devoted to a ‘cross-Channel’ cycle lane network, due to be completed by 2013. The plan involves a series of trails leading into French ports and then reappearing on the English coastline, as though to eliminate this aquatic divide altogether. In addition, £2 million will go towards a contemporary art project, intended to provide “a series of unique experiences and encounters” and the opportunity for “cultural exchange”. And, in one of its more extraordinary schemes, a circus of clowns will tour the region, at a cost of £5.5 million, with acts including ‘Barricade’, a circus study inspired by the theme of scaling walls…

It may well be that some of the objectives of such projects are entirely laudable, yet this does not justify their pursuit by an obscure EU construction. If there is some value in these plans, they should be justified to taxpayers by institutions that operate with real accountability, and at a regional level that is familiar and meaningful to its residents, whether English or French.

Restructuring the delivery of these programmes would also help to identify, and possibly eliminate, more ominous elements of the current EU scheme. For instance, the cycle lane proposals demand harmonised road markings and signage between the English and French sides, and it is the regional officials who select the art and culture worthy of funding. Moreover, officials have commissioned a ‘transnational emblem’ for Interreg; a “series of concentric circles symbolising the flow of projects and stakeholders” across “so many bridges between territories”. Rigorous promotion of the logo, denounced by one Whitehall aide as “a bid to subvert the St George’s flag and the Union Jack”, is a prerequisite for each of the groups receiving funding from the Assembly.

Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has decried the Arc Manche agenda as an attempt “to wipe England off the map”, pledging to “stop this waste and protect England’s national and local identities from EU empire building”. Yet the regionalisation of Europe is not set to stop at the Channel. Further projects are lurking in the pipeline, such as a links between Western Spain and Portugal and along the Italian coast, and even non-member states Norway, Belarus and Switzerland have been engulfed by this European “vanity project”. As UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, laments: “The Arc Manche is the perfect Euro project. Nobody wants it, nobody called for it and nobody knows what it’s for.”

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