It's rare in Germany these days for a major construction project to proceed smoothly. Essential works are so often derailed by citizens' objections that some investors now refer to Germany as the "Opposition Republic."
In a recent referendum in Munich, citizens rejected plans to build a new runway at the city's airport. A coal-fueled power plant planned for Datteln was to be Europe's most effective power station, supplying several cities with electricity, but construction was halted by residents who took the issue to court.
And a huge pumped storage hydropower station in Germany's southern Black Forest region is likely to suffer the same fate. While most citizens favor a change of tack in energy policies, they still filed a suit because they fear the hydropower plant will be a blight on their idyllic landscape.
These are but three examples of civil protest in Germany against major construction projects. Courts have also handled cases brought by citizens against planned road and railway projects, electric lines and industrial parks, a development the Federation of German Industry (BDI) has lamented for many years.
Infrastructure investment falling behind
State investment has declined steadily since 1992. It amounts to less than 10 billion euros ($12.2 billion) per year, just a small percentage of Germany's 600 billion euros in tax revenues. Meanwhile, existing streets deteriorate and important new transportation junctions are not built. Germany's network of railroads has shrunk by almost 8 percent over the past decade, while freight traffic and the need for fast rail links is rapidly on the rise.
"More than 30 percent of the companies active in trade, logistics and industry say their business operations are affected," Stefan Kooths of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW) told DW. However, the economic expert says the situation doesn't contradict the most recent study by Ernst & Young, which comes to the conclusion Germany is held in high esteem by international investors.
"That may be true on an international scale, but we are increasingly not living off the income but the capital," said Kooths, adding that new infrastructure is urgently needed for the future but that not enough is being built.
Günter Krings, chairman of the parliamentary advisory board for sustainable development, agrees. Krings' descriptions of distribution pipelines for drinking water in rural areas come as a shock: germs hazardous to health accumulate, he says, because sewage water can't drain off properly.
But Andreas Knie, founder of the Innovation Center for Mobility and Social Change (InnoZ), says it's "utter nonsense" to blame civil protest for the deteriorating state of Germany's infrastructure. "There are not more protests than before," he said, adding that it's also not true that investors are discouraged by civil protests.
"There is not one single indication that investors say no because things take so long and because there are too many citizens' protests in Germany," he said.
In fact, citizens meddling in infrastructure construction projects can also be a blessing. In the case of a planned 380 kilovolt power line across eastern Germany, even scientists and economists joined in the civil protest, confirming in a study that the power line was neither necessary nor economically reasonable.
Often enough, bridges and planned highway sections turn out to be, at closer inspection, absurd expenses initiated by politicians who are seeking the spotlight. For instance, experts explicitly agreed with citizens campaigning for the closure of some of Germany's approximately 30 regional airports, some of which have but one departure a day.
The real problem
Knie says the lack of necessary infrastructure can not be attributed to civil protests, complicated bureaucracy in planning phases or state austerity measures. The main problem, he says, is a lack of decisiveness on the part of political leaders. "There's no master plan. There's no clear decision on a federal level where existing funds should go," he said.
Kooths has suggested supplementing budget resources with private investment, saying those who use infrastructure must be involved in financing matters much more than in the past.
PricewaterhouseCoopers has calculated that the logistics sector would have to double investments in transportation routes in order to keep up with future growth. The firm added that this would only be possible with the help of private investors. This is, however, still a sticking point with Germany's Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, as well as the state parliaments.
Let citizens have a say
While politicians are still pondering the actual reasons that prevent infrastructure construction from going ahead, there seems to be agreement where civil protests are concerned: in future, they will no longer interfere with projects, or to a lesser degree.
"We must include citizens in construction planning at a much earlier stage and give them actual participation rights," Green Party parliamentarian Ingrid Hönlinger told DW.
In practice, citizens in several communities could form cooperatives to help finance, for instance, wind turbines. The communities would be making money from the turbines, so they wouldn't file suits, said Hönlinger.
This method worked in Frankfurt, where residents affected by aircraft noise at Germany's biggest airport were involved in the decision-making processes for expansion plans from the beginning. Planning and permits took longer than usual, but in the end, the project was realized.
Author: Wolfgang Dick / db
Editor: Martin Kuebler