Engineering makes (political) dreams come true

The Economist, 26 May 2012

As Europe, and the eurozone in particular, teeters, faced with opposite choices, as this week’s Economist cover puts it, it may be instructive to return to the origins of the current European integration project: in the aftermath of world war, integrating French and German coal and steel production was a deliberate political choice to forestall the future likelihood of war between these age-old adversaries.

The prospect of continental war may have indeed been banished from Europe’s troubles, but  the politics are never very far from the economics of interdependence. In addition to previous thoughts about the political prospects for the Desertec solar supergrid across North Africa, two recent examples nuance European integration’s current troubles.

The approval in early April for construction to begin of a rail tunnel under the Alps between France and Italy, linking Lyon to Turin, might not be noteworthy – if it wasn’t for the political dreams behind it, seemingly on par, if not greater, than its economic and environmental rationales, as a Guardian report draws out:

“But, say the tunnel’s proponents, projections based solely on today’s facts and figures miss the point: that “Italy’s Channel tunnel” is intended to create its own, new reality.

“…The Susa valley lies on a proposed rail corridor which, before the Portuguese pulled out, was intended to run from the Atlantic to Ukraine’s border. By linking Turin to Lyon, moreover, it would connect the two biggest cities in a region the Eurocrats have dubbed AlpMed.

“…Whether this region exists in any meaningful sense is debatable…But put these objections to Virano and he hands over a map that appears to show the main rail links in today’s Italy. In fact, it was drawn in 1846 by the Count of Cavour, one of the architects of Italian unification. “If Cavour had taken into account commercial relations between the various cities then he would never have put in these lines,” said Virano. “Some were in countries that were at war at the time.”

“Engineering, in other words, can make dreams come true.”

And on the northern edge of Europe, not unlike Desertec, plans and proposals for new electricity interconnectors across the North Sea between the UK, Iceland, Norway, and the continent, bring closer towards a European energy supergrid, as the map below tantalizingly envisions. This case may be driven more by low-carbon plans, linking diverse renewable energy sources (Icelandic geothermal, Nordic hydro, Irish and British wind, French tidal) to balance and smooth supply – bringing energy security through interdependence – than by any great political ambitions. As before, nonetheless, physical engineering cannot but fail to leave the politics of regional cooperation and integration untouched.

North Sea electricity interconnectors – The Guardian

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