On a cold winter's day in Lalandia, a holiday resort on the Danish Baltic island of Lolland, two men faced off in a kind of duel. One came from Germany, the other from Denmark. The issue was whether Lolland and Fehmarn -- in other words, Denmark and Germany -- should be linked by a tunnel or a bridge. Or whether everything should remain as it is. It also had to do with two kinds of politics.
Hendrick Kerlen, the German, sat in the audience. He opposes a fixed link. In fact, he thinks a tunnel would be just as absurd as a bridge -- and he came armed with arguments and figures and, above all, questions.
Steen Lykke, the Dane, sat on the panel of experts. He works for Femern A/S, the Danish state-owned company tasked with realizing the project. Lykke had also come with figures and plenty of answers.
Kerlen and Lykke are engineers, both well over the age of 60. They have both had successful careers and worked abroad for many years. They share similar views of the world: Both men are cool-headed, rational and interested in feasible projects. They actually should be allies.
The problem is that Lykke's answers don't match Kerlen's questions.
Hubris and Self-Confidence
Lykke, who sports rimless glasses and a white beard, heads the planning team at Femern A/S. He came to Lalandia accompanied by an ornithologist, a marine biologist and a Norwegian expert in tunnel-related claustrophobia.
There were nearly as many Germans as Danes in the audience waiting for the great debate to begin. German opponents to the tunnel project have dubbed it "Fehmarn 21," putting the planned tunnel in the same category as a number of other controversial major projects in Germany, such as the railway station in Stuttgart (known as "Stuttgart 21"), the Berlin Brandenburg Airport and dredging the Elbe River in the port of Hamburg. The number 21 has come to represent the hubris of planners and the self-confidence of the country's citizens. It takes a project that appears to have cleared all the necessary hurdles and puts it in question again.
The Danes had examined four options for creating a fixed link between the two countries, and for a long time it looked like they would favor a bridge. On this evening, the Danish transport minister announced that the government had decided in favor of a tunnel.
It's an enormous, groundbreaking project: nearly 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) long, 40 meters (130 feet) wide, nearly 10 meters high -- and expected to cost at least €5.5 billion ($7.2 billion). Four tubes are planned: two for the highway, each with two lanes, and two for the railway, each with one track. The tunnel would consist of huge concrete elements assembled on land and lowered by boats into a colossal trench on the Baltic seafloor. It would be one of the longest immersed tunnels ever built.
Technical Answers to Political Questions
Lykke, the Danish engineer, talked about fresh air supply and emergency management, about colors and projected images of flocks of birds that would accompany vehicles in the tunnel. He mentioned LED lights installed in the walls, which could create soothing lighting effects to combat claustrophobia. Lykke sounded like a hypnotist.
The seafloor would be dredged and millions of cubic meters of silt and soil moved to make way for the immersion of thousands of tons of heavy tunnel elements. The marine biologist said that he's not particularly concerned, adding that if everything was done right the impact on the environment would be temporary.
A German conservationist asked why they had opted for a so-called immersed tunnel and made no mention of a bored tunnel. It was a valid question, but a question directed at experts, which allowed the Femern representative to provide a purely technical answer to a politically motivated criticism.
The conservationist asked three more technical questions, detailed questions, and with every response the Germans appeared to diminish in size while the Danes on the panel of experts seemed to grow in stature. Perhaps they derived pleasure from using indulgent politeness to sidestep these strange Germans with all their concerns. They gazed down at the German conservationist as if he were speaking a language that they didn't understand.
Finally, a member of the Danish Cyclists' Federation raised his hand. He said that bicycling enthusiasts would like to help offset the costs of the tunnel. Why were there no plans for a bike path?
Kerlen decided not to ask his questions. There was nothing more to say.
Making the Rough Smooth
That evening at Lalandia was "interesting," Kerlen said later. Now he knows what, or who, he's fighting against, he says. Lykke, the tunnel man, is his rival -- the man who, under normal circumstances, could be his ally.
There's a machine on a table that stands near the entrance to the house that Kerlen has built for himself on the island of Fehmarn. It's a small, motor-driven device that hums softly. "A stone polishing machine," says Kerlen. It could be the ideal metaphor for the battle that he's fighting: taking coarse, jagged stones and making them into pieces of smooth and shiny jewelry -- a triumph of tenacity.
Kerlen has lived on Fehmarn for 30 years. This is the first time that he has opposed something that seems to have been decided. His house stands on the outskirts of Westermarkelsdorf, a village in the northwestern corner of the island. The view from the kitchen window is of fields that extend all the way to the horizon. It's the house of a man who likes to keep things orderly and organized, and enjoys living a quiet life. At the age of 73, why does he put himself through all this -- the endless debates, the whole conflict?
Kerlen is an industrial engineer. He worked abroad for a long time and was employed by a consulting firm for 32 years. His job was to provide support for infrastructure projects around the world. Kerlen has been to Malawi and Peru. He has developed flood protection measures in South Korea and advised the Afghan Energy Ministry. He was there when the general traffic plan was drawn up for the Bangkok metropolitan area.
"I know the standards and I know how you have to plan projects," says Kerlen.
Piquing His Curiosity
In the beginning, when he first heard about the project, the belt link was still a German-Danish joint venture. Until now, only a ferry line has connected the two islands of Lolland and Fehmarn. The trip takes three-quarters of an hour and costs €66.50 when traveling with a car.
The proposed fixed link would reduce the travel time, just as it does with the Øresund Bridge, which has connected Denmark and Sweden since 2000. The idea is to connect Denmark and Germany in a way that is fitting for a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected. The distance between Lolland and Fehmarn is considerable, roughly 20 kilometers, and that piqued Kerlen's curiosity as an engineer.
Actually someone like Kerlen would be the ideal person to convince the people on an island like Fehmarn that such an effort is worthwhile. He has experience and technical expertise, he is precise without being pedantic, and he formulates his ideas clearly and concisely. "I wouldn't have got involved if the economic studies had been convincing," he says.
So Kerlen gathered materials, including feasibility studies, expert reports, traffic projections -- the whole works. He approached the fixed link project from the vantage point of an engineer. Perhaps this was the first misunderstanding.
The figures, Kerlen argues, "don't add up at all." They seemed arbitrary to him and the calculations did not appear to have been done properly. They failed, he says, to meet the standards that he believes in. This was the moment when the first doubts began to creep in. "My hunting instincts were aroused," he says.
'A Marginal Project'
In 2004 the Danish transport minister commissioned a study to determine the project's cost-benefit ratio. Kerlen has written many reports like this and he knows that it's easy to manipulate the benefits based on dubious assumptions.
The study calculated a ratio of 1:1.25. "The World Bank would say that this is a marginal project," says Kerlen, and smiles thinly. "It was clear right from the start that the interests of the construction industry are behind this." The way he sits there on his sofa, with his arms folded across his chest, you get the distinct impression that he's starting to really enjoy all of this.
Kerlen isn't affected by the construction project, at least not directly. In any case, he doesn't live on the state road that is slated to become an interstate highway. The route does not cross his property and he's not concerned about noise or traffic. No, he's primarily opposed to the tunnel because he's only found claims pertaining to its necessity, but has never seen any proof. As an engineer, he considers this an affront, and it runs contrary to his sense of civic duty.
For a while Kerlen thought that the politicians would be interested in what he had discovered. The tunnel will cost billions, and the members of parliament are lay people, not engineers like himself, so wouldn't it make sense to ask people who are familiar with the issues involved?
Looking for Logic
In that respect, Kerlen's struggle began with an attempt to get closer to the world of politics. After all, anyone who wants to have political influence has to understand how politics work and how political decisions are made so he has a chance of possibly reversing them.
But Kerlen's attempt to effect political change left him disillusioned. The closer he came to the world of politics, the more he felt that it eluded him. What's more, he took the politics much more seriously than many politicians. He was looking for reason and logic in an area where what matters is power and emotions.
When you get right down to it, says Kerlen, it has to do with the ratio between the costs and the benefits. What is sensible? What is reasonable?
'A Very Special Hole in the Ground'
The man who found his own answers to these questions a long time ago is sitting in a conference room in Copenhagen. At the entrance to the room stands a miniature model of the tunnel under glass, and the room's windows look out over an artificial lake. Lykke, the man responsible for the tunnel at Femern, is an engineer and, like Kerlen, is used to viewing the world rationally, and subjecting figures and measurements to unemotional analyses.
For years he was a partner at a respected Danish engineering firm and has worked in Libya and Saudi Arabia. "We've done practically everything," he says proudly: large complex buildings, hospitals, La Défense in Paris and the Sydney Opera House.
Lykke left his old firm to tackle the Øresund Bridge project. He believed that the link to Sweden would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
He subsequently realized a tunnel project in Istanbul for a Japanese company and lived for seven years on the Bosporus. It could have been the end of a brilliant engineering career. Then, when he returned to Denmark in 2008, the Fehmarn Belt crossing presented itself as the highlight of his career, in his opinion.
An Invisible Link
Why are the Danes so unanimously in favor of building a fixed link to Germany? Why does this project enjoy the support of virtually everyone: citizens, environmentalists and politicians from all parties?
There was initially skepticism and resistance to building the Great Belt Bridge, says Lykke. At first, two-thirds of the Danes were against the bridge. During construction, this resistance shrank to roughly one-third, and today only 1 to 2 percent of the population opposes the link. At an early stage, Lykke invited skeptics like Danish environmental activists to hear their concerns. He asked them: What objections do you have? How can we overcome them?
Lykke won in Denmark because he had respect for his opponents. He respected their arguments and concerns -- and he respected the voters. His advantage was that the Danes simply love bridges.
But the Fehmarn Belt is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and there was a significant chance that sooner or later a fully loaded oil tanker might ram one of the bridge's pillars.
Lykke's job is to build something that nothing can collide with: an invisible link. "The tunnel is nothing but a hole in the ground," he says. "But it's a very special hole in the ground."
Connecting to Europe
It would seem that the Danes don't want to make the mistake of not trying something that should have been attempted. They see a danger in leaving things undone. The Germans, on the other hand, see the danger more in acting.
The Danes, says Lykke, want to connect with Europe. He says that they're looking forward to awarding building contracts to Danish companies and to touring building sites. Lykke argues that the Danes primarily see opportunities. On the other hand, the Germans are already in Europe, and primarily see the risks, he adds. The Germans are currently trying to save Europe, or at least the idea of Europe, which they have played a key role in developing, says Lykke. It's a challenge that demands an enormous amount of energy, and he suggests that perhaps people in Germany have simply grown tired.
They've lost faith, he says, that saving a few minutes of travel time justifies a project worth billions. According to Lykke, the Germans don't want visions -- they want down-to-earth policies.
There was only one public event at the outset, in 2007, with a member of the German parliament from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), says Kerlen, the engineer, speaking in his house on Fehmarn. At the time, he recalls, questions were gathered and then "selectively answered" by the experts. "What Schleswig-Holstein Governor Peter Harry Carstensen is selling as citizen participation is not citizen participation," he says. "These are monologues that he and his ministers conduct. People can ask questions and make statements. But it's not a dialogue."
As long as there is no genuine dialogue, Kerlen's strategy is simple: He subjects the planner's objectives to a reality test -- and finds contradictions.
According to the planners, the highway to Puttgarden, on the German side of the belt, is one of "northern Europe's major thoroughfares." At the same time, argues Kerlen, during the construction phase they intend to make do with a traffic light-controlled four-way intersection for one-and-a-half years because, as they say, there is so little traffic that a temporary bridge is unnecessary. He's found many such examples and he eventually realized that he, as a citizen, was not being taken seriously by the politicians.
The relationship between voters and politicians is in fact often characterized by mutual contempt. "When it comes to infrastructure planning, we Germans are a developing country," says Kerlen.
Who Needs the Link?
"Anyone who plans something like this should really be locked up," says Kerlen's ally Malte Siegert, who works for the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) on Fehmarn.
Siegert is the strategist, the spokesman for the resistance. He can eloquently explain why so many people are fighting to put a halt to the belt link, from conservationists and farmers and tourism managers, to former CDU supporters, producers of organic products and engineers like Kerlen.
The evening at Lalandia was for Siegert only one round in a fight that has just begun. He says that an environmental impact assessment still has to be conducted by German agencies, and the Danish parliament still has to vote on the issue. It could take years before construction begins -- at least, that's what Siegert is hoping.
The Germans don't want the belt link because they don't need it, Siegert contends. No one needs it, he says. The trucking companies don't want it, he argues, because their drivers could no longer use the ferry crossing as a mandatory break from sitting behind the wheel -- and there's too little freight traffic and too few trucks and too few cars anyway. Siegert is currently mobilizing massive resistance to the project.
Five years ago, he says, representatives from a number of big companies gathered for an investor conference in Berlin. The topic was the planned fixed link between Germany and Denmark, and whether the project had a future. It was attended by German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, as well as major players in the construction industry like Hochtief and Bilfinger & Berger and Germany's national railway operator Deutsche Bahn. The original plan was that the private and the public sector would share the costs.
On that day in September, though, the industry dismissed the project and Deutsche Bahn voiced concerns. Suddenly it looked like the fixed link was dead. Shortly thereafter, Tiefensee decided to leave the project completely in the hands of the Danes.
A 'No' that Sounded like 'Maybe'
For their part, the Germans merely agreed to ensure that the time that was saved by taking the tunnel would not be lost traveling there. They would modernize the rail line and build an interstate highway to Puttgarden, the current ferry terminal.
It was an offer to avoid losing face -- a "no" that was intended to sound like a "maybe." If the Germans were hoping that the Danes would subsequently drop the project, the plan backfired. The Danes agreed with everything. Tiefensee signed an international treaty in Copenhagen and on June 18, 2009, shortly before midnight, the German parliament, the Bundestag, began to debate its ratification.
Siegert sat in the public gallery of the Bundestag and listened attentively. The international treaty, he says, was subsequently waved through by a handful of legislators. "Pushing through Europe's largest infrastructure project in a cloak-and-dagger operation, with no knowledge of the impact on the federal budget, I see that as a scandal," he says.
For Kerlen, the question is whether politicians are even up to the job. Do they simplify an increasingly complex world as it suits them? Or are they hiding behind this complexity, although it's all actually very simple?
Kerlen has started to dream of a democracy based on the Swiss model of using national referendums to make important decisions. In reality, he believes that Germany has what he calls a competitive democracy. As he sees it, the parties primarily exist to obtain power so they can then occupy public office.
Kerlen wants respect.
The Essence of Politics
When he really gets going, Kerlen tells the story of one particular informational evening. Three years ago, he and a few fellow allies took a tour of the area with a member of parliament from the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). At the time, under the so-called grand coalition of the CDU and the SPD, the transport minister was a Social Democrat. The member of parliament was on the transport committee of the German parliament, the Bundestag, and had come to sound out the situation regarding the planned fixed link and the upcoming vote on the German-Danish treaty.
They sat down together on the ferry that links Puttgarden with the Danish town of Rødby. The SPD lawmaker listened patiently to the arguments of the opponents to the fixed link, nodded in agreement, and thanked them when they were finished. Then he said: "But you don't really believe that we would leave the government in the lurch?"
In Kerlen's view, this is the essence of politics, in a single sentence.
Perhaps the stone-polishing machine is in fact a metaphor. The smooth, shiny stones that have been polished by the machine are displayed in a bowl on the windowsill. Kerlen and his wife collected them during long walks on the beach. It must be very gratifying to be able to smooth and shape stones like that.
Does Kerlen also use the machine?
"I wouldn't have the patience for it," he says.