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Tesla: Court win for German protesters amid expansion vote

May 16, 2024

A regional court ruled that police may not remove a forest encampment erected by environmentalists opposing Elon Musk's factory expansion plans. At the same time, local officials approved a downsized expansion plan.

A treehouse and a sign reading 'End CARpitalism' seen in a section of forest in Grünheide, Germany
Protesters are fighting to keep a section of forest from being clearcut to expand Tesla's factory footprintImage: Jörg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance

The Higher Administrative Court of Berlin-Brandenburg on Thursday ruled in favor of environmentalists fighting police over the right to protest the planned expansion of a Tesla production facility in the town of Grünheide, near the German capital Berlin.

The court found that local police had not sufficiently proven that the camp posed a safety threat, ruling that treehouses erected in a forest camp were a legitimate form of protest and could not be ordered removed.

Environmental protesters erected the camp in late February to fight the planned expansion of Elon Musk's Grünheide gigafactory, which would require the clearcutting of a large swath of forest.

Local authorities voted in favor the expansion later on Thursday.

Battling Tesla's Gigafactory

Local council approves Tesla extension

Tesla said its plans to extend its facility had been approved in a vote by local officials, adding that it was "extremely pleased" with the outcome.

Some 11 councilors voted in favor, six voted against and two abstained. Police were deployed outside the municipal council meeting as people protested against the expansion.

Dietmar Woidke, the premier of the eastern state of Brandenburg that surrounds Germany's capital, appealed to demonstrators to remain peaceful.

The company still requires approval from local environmental authorities before it can go ahead with its plans that include building a train station.

The EV maker hopes to double the capacity of the factory to 100 gigawatt hours of battery production and 1 million cars per year. Opponents of the plan say it will endanger the local water supply since it is located in a protected drinking water area.

Court victory means police, Tesla may not remove camp or ban protesters

The camp, which activists argue is the equivalent of a protest protected under right to assembly laws — which require no extra permission from police to take place, but can be rejected in certain situations — was originally registered from February 29 to March 15, then extended until May 20. The area of the protest was also set to expand by about one hectare (2.47 acres) and the number of treehouses in it increase from 15, to 20.

Police had attempted to block the move in March but a Lower Administrative Court in Potsdam ruled against them. Police then appealed the decision before the Higher Administrative Court, where they again lost.

This means neither police nor Tesla can dismantle the camp, nor can they prohibit protesters from entering the site.

There is no further legal recourse for police after the Thursday Higher Administrative Court's decision.

The decision, said the court, solely addressed the legality of the camp and not whether protesters' right to assembly may continue past May 20.

A speaker for the protest group "Tesla stoppen" (Stop Tesla) said the group had already filed an extension request.

Police in riot gear stand in a huddle outside the Müggelspreehalle in Grünheide, Germany
Citizens overwhelmingly rejected a full-scale expansion of Tesla's Grünheide gigafactory, the local council will consider approval of a downsized version on ThursdayImage: Patrick Pleul/dpa/picture alliance

Protesters hail legal 'victory'

Protesters called the court's verdict a "major victory," whereas police reacted with reserve, saying they would study the decision to analyze where exactly they had made mistakes in presenting their case.

Protesters say police have sought to limit their right to assembly while attempting to criminalize legitimate protest.

The Grünheide facility, the only European production and shipping site for the US electric vehicle manufacturer, has been the focus of heated protest over both the deforestation required to expand it, as well as the massive amounts of public water the company requires in the production of its vehicle batteries.

Grünheide is nestled between two lakes and next to a large forest, east of Berlin and not far from the Polish border.

Last week saw several days of protests near the site, with at times heavy clashes between protesters and police, especially when the former attempted to storm the factory, which had also been the target of an arson attack by radical leftists in early March.

Tesla's plans for a full-scale expansion were overwhelmingly rejected in a local referendum held in February.

Asked on Sunday about what would happen in the event that the local council should approve the expansion, organizers said, "We'll be back!"

Taking on Tesla — Fight for the Forest

sdi,js/msh,ab (AFP, dpa)