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Angry Germans: Big Projects Face Growing Resistance

By , Horand Knaup and Paul Middelhoff

Photo Gallery: Protesters' War on Big Projects Photos
Peter Schinzler/ DER SPIEGEL

Part 2: 'Not Interested in Consensus'

If Hartmut Binder's journey has turned him from a rule enforcer to an anti-authoritarian, Dieter Salomon's has done the reverse. Now the 53-year-old mayor of Freiburg in southwestern Germany, he joined the Green Party 35 years ago when protest was the cornerstone of its identity. Salomon demonstrated against four-lane highways and the construction of the Freiburg Congress Center. Then Salomon opted to move away from grassroots activism and into politics, which is all about making compromises. "If I want to make a change then I need to be in government and assume responsibility," he says. "And that involves being willing to make concessions. Interest groups don't define the common good, elected bodies do."

These days, he sees grassroots protests, activism and political responsibility from a different perspective. "The typical protesters are gray-haired, know-it-alls and very networked," he says. "But they're not remotely interested in consensus-building, political processes and pluralism."

Salomon's nemesis is Gerlinde Schrempp, a determined and argumentative 67-year-old retired teacher with attitude to spare. She's the leader of the Freiburg Lebenswert movement, which translates roughly to "make Freiburg worth living in. The movement just got elected on to the district council and is first and foremost opposed to any new building in the city.

This includes a new stadium for the local football club. The team has done much to boost Freiburg's image in the last 20 years, but it needs a new arena. Its current pitch is four and a half meters too short and in the heart of a residential area, making it less than ideal. Salomon has pulled out all the stops in his attempts to win the public over to the club's cause.

The site chosen -- out of 24 possibilities -- is on the outskirts of the city, not far from the autobahn and Freiburg's airport. The mayor, the district council, the club and its fans were all in favor of the location, but then Schrempp and the 3,500 members of her grassroots initiative took to the barricades. A lengthy mediation process proved fruitless and Schrempp continues to harp on about her opponents' "arrogance" and how they "don't understand how to deal with power." "We won't accept this any longer," she says categorically.

Even Merkel Faces Wrath

Grassroots groups have become so livid, intransigent and single-minded that even the most respected politician in the country, Angela Merkel, is feeling their sting. In early May, hundreds of furious residents had gathered in central Ingolstadt to protest against the construction of a power line from Bad Lauchstädt in Sachsen-Anhalt to Meitingen in Bavaria. As Merkel looked out across a sea of banners and flags, her speech was drowned out by the braying crowd. Merkel knows full well there is no alternative to the power line if her government's planned nuclear phase-out has a chance of working. But instead of spelling this out, she did what she so often does when a conflict arises -- evaded the issue. "Together we will solve this problem," she said.

North Rhine-Westphalia Governor Groshek believes politicians need to put their foot down and say when they see a project as necessary. "I am responsible for the survival of my state's industry and that means I need to make some unpopular decisions sometimes," he says.

Much of the infrastructure in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, dates back to the post-war years and is literally in danger of falling apart. Built in 1965, the Rhine Bridge near Leverküsen, for example, is one of the busiest stretches of autobahn in the country, but trucks are frequently prevented from crossing its narrow road, most recently in mid-June.

A new bridge was slated to be built by 2020, but many locals would prefer a tunnel instead. "I can't kowtow to the bridge opponents -- I need to tell them the truth, which is that a tunnel only solves their own problem." Were a tunnel to be built, he knows all to well, it would draw its own protests.

Local and statewide referenda are no solution. Only those immediately affected by the issue tend to take part -- usually, with a view to vetoing a project. Schleswig-Holstein's governor Albig is pushing for nationwide votes on major infrastructure projects. But these could actually strengthen local resistance movements, who would rail against outsiders having a say in their issue.

Railway Tries New Approach

This ultimately means all interests need to be brought under one tent. That, at least, is the conclusion that Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway, reached after the Stuttgart 21 fiasco. "Back then we swore that from that point forward no railway project would be allowed to escalate that dramatically," says Volker Kefer, the company's head of infrastructure.

The resistance, Kefer knows, becomes more intense the more advanced a project gets. By that point, the decision to pursue a project is usually already made. That's why the railway is trying to talk to the people affected by a project early on. That's the case for a new railway line to be built between Bremen, Hamburg and Hanover. It's unclear if the project will ever come to fruition, but the company is traveling around the region in order to present locals with the preliminary drafts.

"It's better to talk to too many locals than not to talk to enough," is the new motto. This also applies to a new railway link to the Fehmarnbelt Tunnel in Schleswig-Holstein. The railway originally wanted to expand the existing line through the Baltic Sea spa region, but the locals feared it would hurt tourism. The company relented, and now a new line is supposed to be built along the A1 highway. "If citizen involvement is taken seriously, it means that things will become more expensive," says Kefer. "But it means we can build in the first place and also have peace in the long term. That's a prize society should be willing to pay."

Transportation Minister Dobrindt sees things similarly. In the past few months, his officials have developed a four-point-plan for citizen involvement. Depending on a project's advancement, there are to be information events, planning discussions, citizen forums and project advisers and a "reform commission for large projects" is supposed to examine the planning process.

This means that the construction of a bridge, which would have previously required the involvement of only a couple of engineers, has now become a social-political super project. But there's no way around it. "We need to be able to push forward important projects. In order to do that, we need a different project management, especially in the early phase," says Hamburg Mayor Olaf Scholz. "If you give up wanting something, then you've already lost."

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1. Question of power
quark@mailinator.com 07/13/2014
I'm very much for real democracy ... but not if that means that everybody has only his own interest in mind and not the future of the country. Obviously part of the problem is that now the accumulated property of the citicens in several trillion Euros while the state only has a debt of similiar proportions. In such a situation it's clear who wins in a struggle - the party with more money to invest. So my personal bottom-line is: People who suffer by construction neccessary for the country should be compensated - compensated well and fair. But they should not be able to block things. I see with disgust how so called "Third World" or "Developing" countries build beautiful cities and infrastructure while in Germany the ugly post-war constructions barely sustain the needs. The kind of thinking ... about nature, about personal consequences, about all kinds of risk seems weak and shortsighted to me. We are becomming a country of teachers and bureaucrats ... people who want to build something run into walls all the time and nobody is prepared to take any risk anymore ... not to mention that education also goes down and with it the view for the bigger picture. Serious changes are sorely needed.
2. Transition
John_Banister 07/14/2014
Sounds like a transition from a more representational to a more direct form of democracy. Those who don't trust representatives will probably like it a little better.
3. Angry Germans
I.M. Forman 07/14/2014
No doubt a functioning democracy like Germany's needs dissent but informed dissent, not just "not in my backyard dissent." An airplane landing path with have a flyover somewhere. It will not go away itself.
4. Question of power
quark@mailinator.com 07/14/2014
I'm very much for real democracy ... but not if that means that everybody has only his own interest in mind and not the future of the country. Obviously part of the problem is that now the accumulated property of the citicens in several trillion Euros while the state only has a debt of similiar proportions. In such a situation it's clear who wins in a struggle - the party with more money to invest. So my personal bottom-line is: People who suffer by construction neccessary for the country should be compensated - compensated well and fair. But they should not be able to block things. I see with disgust how so called "Third World" or "Developing" countries build beautiful cities and infrastructure while in Germany the ugly post-war constructions barely sustain the needs. The kind of thinking ... about nature, about personal consequences, about all kinds of risk seems weak and shortsighted to me. We are becomming a country of teachers and bureaucrats ... people who want to build something run into walls all the time and nobody is prepared to take any risk anymore ... not to mention that education also goes down and with it the view for the bigger picture. Serious changes are sorely needed.
5. envirofascism
cslagenhop 07/17/2014
Envirofascists are anti-development. Their primary theory is that humanity is a blight upon mother earth. They will do nothing to stop until we are all dead or living in the stone age. Humanity should reject this form of religious extremism.
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