Citizen participation and social protest in transnational megaprojects

Participatory governance in megaprojects is intended to involve citizens in the decision-making process, and tackle their disaffection towards institutions. Mattia Bottino analyses the ‘proximity strategy’ used to realise the Brenner Basistunnel between Italy and Austria and contrasts it with the NO TAV experience in Italy’s Susa Valley

The South Tyrolean ‘quietness’

At the border between Austria and Italy, the Brenner Basistunnel (BBT) has been under construction since 2007. It is a 55km railway tunnel that connects Franzensfeste/Fortezza (South Tyrol, Italy) to Innsbruck (Tyrol, Austria). This megaproject is part of the longer railway that connects Verona and Munich.

The BBT is seen as a reference model among public infrastructure megaprojects in Italy. Almost no form of organised social activism has emerged in South Tyrol to oppose its construction.

In contrast, construction of the 57km tunnel piercing the Alps between the Susa Valley (Italy) and the Maurienne Valley (France) has provoked violent opposition. The megaproject forms part of the 270km high-speed railway line between Lyon and Turin. Against it has emerged one of the longest-lasting socio-environmental protest movements in Italy’s republican history. The NO TAV (No High-Speed Train) movement has organised continual assaults on construction sites in the Susa valley, involving thousands of citizens.

Two megaprojects pierce the Alps from Italy to its neighbours. In the Susa Valley, opposition is fierce and continuous. But all is quiet in South Tyrol. Why?

In mid-June 2023, opposition to the Lyon-Turin tunnel escalated on the French side of the border. Organised resistance to the megaproject took on a transnational dimension. The French authorities’ reaction to this uprising was immediate. On 21 June, the government decreed the dissolution of Soulèvements de la Terre (Uprisings of the Earth), the biggest environmentalist movement involved in the latest demonstration.

In contrast, the quietness of South Tyrol’s civil society about a megaproject that drills through the Alps is surprising. What, in the eyes of South Tyroleans, legitimises the Brenner Basistunnel (BBT)?

The BBT’s ‘proximity strategy’

We can, in part, attribute the social legitimisation of the BBT to a top-down, semi-institutionalised attempt at participatory governance. In 2007, the actors involved in BBT construction set up two ad hoc consultation-oriented hubs.

These were the Infocenter and the Observatory for the works of the BBT and for the southern access. The Observatory also includes representatives of two sub-provincial administrative districts: the Bezirksgemeinschaften/Comunità comprensoriali of Eisacktal/Valle Isarco and Wipptal/Alta Val d'Isarco. These last are ‘the direct interlocutors for the population’ and the bodies in charge of dealing with their ‘concerns’.

The BBT’s ‘proximity strategy’ took form through such discussion hubs. The strategy includes public assemblies, topic-specific working groups, and consultative encounters with civic associations and social actors. All actors from across the municipalities of the Eisack/Isarco River were summoned and consulted.

It is difficult to evaluate the true nature of the hubs’ consultation-oriented activity. But it is clear that, given their focus on citizens’ worries, the hubs have provided a frame of participatory governance in this megaproject.

A forerunner of institutionalised public debates

From a deliberativist perspective, this ‘proximity strategy’ has occurred in a rather unsystematic way, in the absence of any provincial, regional, or national legislative involvement in the public debate.

In South Tyrol, a provincial law that regulates direct and participatory mechanisms was introduced, but only in December 2018. Provincial law n. 22/2018 on ‘Direct democracy, participation and political formation’ offers a normative frame for participatory democracy. This act stipulates that direct and participatory democracy channel popular will, and are part of South Tyrol’s democratic life. It institutionalises a ‘Citizens’ Council’, a ‘participatory process’ that aims to involve the population in the political process on ‘issues of collective interest’. But, to date, this participatory body has never been activated.

Participation in the BBT project took place in the absence of national or regional scaffolding, with two consultation hubs established early in the project

At national level, the legislative decree no. 50 ‘Code on public contracts’ in 2016 introduced public debate. It made the activation of such debates mandatory for big and environmentally impactful infrastructural works.

The existence of a national legal frame for citizens’ participation in megaprojects is thus rather recent. Therefore, the attempt at participatory governance in the BBT megaproject is noticeable. The discussion hubs do not, strictly speaking, conform with deliberative theories and processes. Still, they have contributed significantly to the social legitimisation of the BBT megaproject.

Legitimising the megaproject

There are three main reasons the BBT has experienced the degree of legitimisation that it has.

First, tackling traffic jams and pollution along the A22 highway, which connects Italy to Austria/Central Europe, represents a decades-long social demand. Second, the Austrian Tyrol and Innsbruck are still significant work and study destinations for German-speaking South Tyroleans.

And third, the presence of a solid provincial majority eased planning and implementation of the BBT. We can ascribe at least some responsibility for this trouble-free process to the ‘institutional support’ of the Südtiroler Volkspartei. This party, in charge in South Tyrol since 1948, takes a positive stance towards the BBT.

Participatory surplus or inert social body?

Is the South Tyroleans’ compliance with the BBT the product of a forward-looking attempt at participatory governance? Or is South Tyrol’s social body less prone to social mobilisation?

Historically, social animosity in South Tyrol revolved around tense intergroup relations. However, it is now considered a successful example of conflict resolution. In contrast, Piedmont (where the Susa Valley lies) was a cradle of Italian socialism and unionist struggles throughout the 20th century. Piedmont’s fragmented electorate and alternated majorities have undermined the realisation of the Turin-Lyon high-speed trainline.

The region in which the Susa Valley lies has a fragmented electorate and a history of struggles throughout the 20th century

In the Susa Valley, an institutionally driven participatory body was set up too late. Authorities only constituted the Piedmontese Observatory in 2006 after the virulent escalation of popular demonstrations in late 2005. The Observatory presented itself as the first Italian experiment in participatory planning of megaprojects. But in truth, it has been ineffective in defusing anti-megaproject popular uprisings.

Participatory governance in megaprojects and co-construction in public policy are surely desirable. But it is also important to look at the roots of social movements, because we can argue that a group’s tendency towards social mobilisation is an endogenous factor. This tendency is a deep-rooted collective resource that can remain tepid, as in South Tyrol. But it can also become conflictual, as in the Susa Valley.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Mattia Bottino
Mattia Bottino
Junior Researcher, Institute for Comparative Federalism, Eurac Research, Bolzano

Mattia holds an MA in International Relations and a BA in Political, Social and International Sciences from the University of Bologna, from which he also holds a Second-Level Master's Degree in Participatory Processes, Communities and Networks of Proximity.

His main research interests include deliberative democracy and federal studies; also participatory mechanisms for public policymaking in a multilevel perspective, and in deeply plural societies.

Mattia's additional fields of interest are historical linguistics and linguistic rights, national minority rights and minority nationalism in Europe.

He tweets @bottino_mattia

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