Photo Gallery: Protesters' War on Big Projects

Foto: Peter Schinzler/ DER SPIEGEL

Angry Germans Big Projects Face Growing Resistance

In recent years, a new protest culture has made it more difficult for to complete big infrastructure projects in Germany. Now leaders are growing increasingly frustrated with protesters' unwillingness to compromise, and worry they're endangering the country's future.

Back when 75-year-old Hartmut Binner worked as a policeman in Bavaria, he saw himself as a guardian of the peace. In the 1970s, he was deployed during protests against the building of Munich's new airport. But now, as the leader of AufgeMUCkt, an association of over 80 public protest groups, he's spent the last few years campaigning against the third runway at the airport.

"I'll be a policeman until the day I die, but I lost my faith in politicians and the rule of law a long time ago," he says in his garden in the district of Friesing, gesturing to a plane roaring overhead. For his last birthday, he asked for a noise meter.

Binner's entire life revolves around the campaign. He monitors the routes of departing and landing planes. He plays his self-designed noise simulator on market squares. He kicks off his court appearances by singing the Bavarian national anthem. "If you want to be heard as a member of the public, you need to push the envelope," he shrugs.

Binner has a number of arguments up his sleeve -- from the airport's dwindling traffic to its increasingly badly paid jobs - and he's not interested in compromise. Binner's form of protest has a radical undercurrent: Well-informed, confrontational and devoid of respect for authority, he is typical of the new grassroots activism spreading across Germany. Wherever ambitious construction ventures loom on the horizon in Germany -- from the cities to the countryside, from the coastlines in the north to the Black Forest in the south -- opponents are taking to the streets.

More often than not, the demonstrators are protesting against projects that stand for change: extensions to airports, railways, new wind farms or power lines. Not even new subways or sports stadiums are exempt.

"Infrastructure developments have always been society's flagship projects, a symbol of progress," says Torsten Albig, governor of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. But as the public's enthusiasm for constant innovation has lessened, so has the appeal of these sorts of projects, and, as a result, they now inevitably come accompanied by picketers.

Germany's graying society, it seems, is so cozy and settled that it resists anything threatening to upset the status quo. In the process, it has lost sight of the bigger picture. All that matters to these "Nimbies" -- as opponents of new developments have been dubbed (an acronym for the phrase "Not in My Back Yard") -- are their own interests, seemingly oblivious to the fact that German industry relies on intact infrastructure, new roads and train tracks, apartments and power plants, supply lines and shipping routes in order to function.

New Resistance for Politicians

The most spectacular of these kinds of disputes was over Stuttgart's main railway station -- a bitterly fought battle against a venture few actually wanted. The Stuttgart 21 project aimed to replace the city's current 17-track station with a below-ground facility, as well as build new above-ground and underground lines, but it prompted thousands to take to the streets in protests over the project's cost and effect on public spaces, only to be met by water cannons and police batons.

The Stuttgart 21 conflict illustrates just how much has changed in the relationship between governments and constituents. Today, local politicians are faced with fundamental skepticism about their competence and vision when it comes to everyday matters. These disputes over infrastructure projects aren't so much about the bricks and mortar as they are about whether representative democracy still works.

Political and bureaucratic bodies are partly to blame for their own diminished authority. Every major venture seems to entail spiraling costs. Berlin's new airport  was supposed to cost €1.7 billion, a price tag that has shot up to well over €5 billion. Meanwhile, the €187 million earmarked for the Elbphilharmonie concert hall under construction in Hamburg is expected to exceed €865 million by the time the project is completed. Albig is well aware how bad this looks. "People see us as financially incompetent," he says.

For the time being, he and other politicians have no ready solution to all this public resentment. Alexander Dobrindt, a member of the Christian Democrats and Germany's transportation minister, is looking to institutionalize grassroots activism with a four-phase plan but it remains to be seen if the strategy will take off given how helpless and insecure it leaves most politicians. Some of them remain impervious in the face of opposition, while others attempt to be conciliatory -- reducing, for example, the number of turbines in a new wind park, investing in noise barriers or relocating a planned power mast. But the public has increasingly managed to preempt them with referendums and petitions, often torpedoing their jobs in the process.

In Berlin for example, a recent vote on the future of the former Tempelhof airfield proved disastrous for the local government, putting a stop to its plans to build on the perimeter of the park. The public similarly quashed Munich's bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics last year. In early 2013, plans for a light-rail system in Aachen were derailed and residents of Bielefeld vetoed a new subway system. Nothing seems to pass muster these days.

Battle Over a Runway

"In my opinion the third runway at Munich airport is the last runway that will get built in Germany," says Michael Kerkloh, the CEO of Munich Airport and sworn enemy of Hartmut Binner. The venture has become an acid test of whether it remains possible "to get anything at all done in this country," he says. He doesn't bother making excuses for the noise pollution that Binner is so enraged about. "Of course a new runway is unpopular with residents but should the world's fourth largest economy give up on international air traffic?" he asks.

As usual, it's a question of priorities and of what is more important -- the interests of a few hundred or thousand residents, or the greater good of the nation. "The protesters don't think about how the country might benefit, they just think about themselves," complains Kerkloh.

He has his own explanation for the growing resistance movements. Many of the protestors are pensioners with no vested interest in Germany's future. "It's striking that the leader of the protests against the Munich runway is a 75-year-old and not someone in the middle of his working life," he points out.

The term "Wutbürger" ("enraged citizen") was coined during the Stuttgart 21 fiasco to describe people like Hartmut Binner, and much has been written about them since. They often aren't the "common man." According to the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Studies, they tend to be highly educated people with steady incomes and white collar jobs. And while protests movements of the past were often steered by sociologists, today their leaders are more likely to stem from the technical professions, the researchers found.

They're a familiar breed not only to Kerkloh and his kind but also to politicians. As North Rhine-Westphalia's Transport Minister Michael Groschek says, "Germany is increasingly dominated by a pre-retirement mentality... the people who are most vocal in their protests are ones who just want to be left in peace for the last 10 to 20 years of their lives."

'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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