|Although P&O had made the huge investment in three new ships at the start of the decade, by the end of the 1990s the Dover-Zeebrugge freight service was struggling. Since the advent of the Channel Tunnel, routes peripheral to the Dover-Calais artery had fallen by the wayside. The improvement in coastal roads from Calais to Belgium and beyond had undermined the requirement for a direct link, Norfolkline were making an impact with their own Dover-Dunkerque freight link whilst the longer crossing time and distraction it provided P&O Stena from their core Calais link all suggested a gradual run-down of the Zeebrugge route was in the offing. The removal of the European Seaway to add capacity to Dover-Calais and to counter the significant Seafrance freight threat provided further evidence, whilst the decision in 2001 to allow passengers with cars to use the previously freight-only Zeebrugge ships added an interesting option but seems to have been something of a final throw of the dice, causing a degree of resentment from the freight drivers who had until then enjoyed life away from the tourists.
As part of the package of P&O-Stena Line announcements in early Summer 2002, it was revealed that the Zeebrugge link was to close at the end of the year and the two remaining freighters, European Pathway and European Highway, would be converted for passenger use at Calais; - the latter move became widely known by its internal P&O code name: The Darwin Project. At the same time, the P&O buy-out of Stena's 40% share in the company was confirmed whilst for their part Stena took over P&O's ex-ASN trade from Felixtowe.
The 'Pathway' and 'Highway' duly completed their Zeebrugge duties, with the final sailings by European Highway taking place on 15 December 2002. For the conversion, the sisters had been booked into the yard of their builders, SSW of Bremerhaven, but after they went into receivership an alternative arrangement was reached with nearby Lloyd Werft. Although the European class had been designed with some element of future conversion in mind, this was somewhat restricted and P&O would later regret the lack of Stena-like flexibility ('Stenability' as the Swedish giant puts it) built into their freighters. Essentially, although provision had been made to extend the deckhouses aft, the ambitious original conversion plans went beyond the strength of the hulls and stability would be called into question. In the event therefore, P&O were forced to scale-back the conversions, but the transformation from freighter to multi-purpose ferry was still comprehensive, with little of the original accommodation remaining within the new passenger spaces.
The European Pathway became the new Pride of Canterbury and entered service in May 2003 whilst European Highway was renamed Pride of Kent and followed her sister into service in June. The two ships replaced a pair of significant ferries in their own right: P O Kent (the former Spirit of Free Enterprise and lead ship of Townsend Thoresen's revolutionary Spirit class of 1980) and P O Canterbury (ex-Fantasia, the landmark cross-channel ferry of the 1990s).