Cross-alpine tran­sit pro­tests

Truck congestion on the Brenner autobahn. The vision of connecting north and sou
Truck congestion on the Brenner autobahn. The vision of connecting north and south turned into a rejection of European transport policy.
When the large highways crossing the Austrian and Swiss Alps were built, citizens’ movements protesting the transalpine traffic started to form in both countries from the 1970s onwards. They found common ground in blaming EU policy but overall employed distinct methods, also with varying success, and never really joined forces. In a recent project, historians in Innsbruck, Basel and Munich made these two environmental initiatives the subject of their comparative research. 

It came with the promise of a better future in the 1950s and 1960s: a new highway crossing the Alps in Tyrol was meant to attract tourists to the region, facilitate travel and boost trade and the economy in general. This new artery was supposed to bring Europe closer together. It was no coincident that the monumental bridge high above the Sill gorge that was completed in 1963 was named "Bridge of Europe". And it did, in fact, bring wealth, particularly fueled by streams of tourists. But not long after the highway across the Brenner Pass was completed, residents started to notice the drawbacks: traffic jams, noise and air pollution.

People started to voice their discontent, and an environmental campaign formed to fight against the increasing traffic crossing the Alps. What was conceived of as a project uniting the north and the south in the spirit of Europe turned into passionate opposition to EU transport policy. People in Austria looked to Switzerland with envy, as the neighboring country had managed to implement far more rigid transit constraints. In Their analysis has shed new light on the mechanisms driving one group’s success and the other one’s failure in shaping the policies that governed transport crossing the Alps.

"The political strategies surrounding the construction of the highways across the Alps were very similar in Austria and Switzerland. In both countries, alpine conservation movements formed in the 1970s and went on to influence political decision-making in different ways," historian Maria Buck explains. "Among other things, we looked into how these initiatives influenced each other and the ways the two cases were negotiated on the EU level." Together with Patrick Kupper of the University of Innsbruck’s Department of History and European Ethnology , Buck investigated the history of the protest movement in Tyrol as one of three sub-projects of "Issues with Europe" as part of her doctoral dissertation. The two other case studies were carried out at the University of Basel and LMU Munich and dealt with the public discourse on transit traffic in Switzerland and actions taken on the EU level. In their work, the historians also analyzed the social networks that developed within and between the movements.

Worship services and rifle companies on the highway

The local movement in Tyrol protesting transalpine traffic from the 1970s onwards differed markedly from the political activism to promote environmentalism that emerged in many parts of Europe at that time. "In Tyrol, it was about the personal impact. The protests rested on the shoulders of the rural population with homes close to the Brenner highway: farmers and the bourgeois middle class as opposed to students and members of the political left, which carried similar movements in other countries," Buck explains. The legendary highway sit-ins with their touch of folklore clearly reveal the movement’s roots. Worship services were carried out on the highway, followed by the parade of a rifle company."

The protests always zoomed in on truck transit and turned a blind eye to tourism, which was an important revenue source in Tyrol even then. To reach their goals, the activists went to one echelon of political representation after the other. At first, they vied for support among the local population in Tyrol. After a while, demands were communicated to regional and later federal politicians, who were in charge of operating the highways. When the public debate about Austria joining the EU took off in the 1980s, the activists started to put officials in Brussels in the crosshairs. "Regional politicians in Tyrol tried to curb the protests on the one hand, but on the other hand, they used them as leverage in their negotiations with policymakers in Vienna and Brussels," Buck shares her findings. "In addition to political neutrality and agriculture, transit was turned into one of the three key topics shaping Austria’s EU accession negotiations. The vision of a Europe brought closer together through new transport routes had turned into a nemesis."

Successful protests in Austria and Switzerland

The introduction of a night-driving ban for trucks, first on the Brenner highway and, later, on all highways across Austria in the 1980s, is widely viewed as the greatest success of the Tyrolean movement, Buck says. Following EU accession, which resulted in limitations to Austria’s freedom to regulate Alpine transit, the protests gradually died down. A final face-off took place in 2004, when a transitional regulation limiting this kind of through-traffic came to an end.

The Swiss activists that were fighting goods haulage across their country in the 1970s started from a very similar point. But the protests there had a very different impact on society, which can be attributed to the fact in particular that the Swiss legal system differs greatly from the Austrian jurisdiction. "As opposed to Austrian demonstrations, Swiss protests could never be staged directly on the highways. The authorities simply did not clear any initiatives to do so. And when the protesters took to the streets anyway, they were swiftly and rather forcefully removed," the historian explains. "On the other hand, Swiss legislation makes it much easier for citizens to start a political campaign in order to influence policy-making." The discontent in Switzerland resulted in the foundation of the so-called "Alpine Initiative", which exists to this day. Furnished with ample funds, it engages in lobbying and PR aimed at a transport policy that curbs traffic across the Alps. And its efforts have been paying off: freight transport across the Alps in Switzerland is logistically much more cumbersome and expensive than in Austria.

No closed ranks among the environmental organizations

Even though both countries’ protest movements had the same goals, they kept their distance. "The activists were aware of each other and observed the developments in the neighboring country. There were also efforts to link up the various groups through organizing joint conventions in the 1980s. But that did not produce the desired results," Buck shares. "This was not due to the different legal systems, however, but had much more mundane reasons related to the people involved. The leaders of the movements in the two countries simply did not get along." Politicians in both Austria and Switzerland were criticized for failing to collaborate and engage in bilateral negotiations. But this was also something the activists neglected to do.

Among the protesters, the EU became the number-one enemy. But Buck points out that the positions held by EU officials were not as unambiguous as some claimed. "There were, in fact, numerous players espousing a European solution. And this is also something that MPs demanded from the EU Commission many times." In the end, Austria and Switzerland negotiated transit agreements with the EU individually, with Austria faring much more poorly in the protesters’ view. "With Austria’s treaty of accession already signed, the country had a weaker position in the negotiations," Buck says. "In the end, the protesters angrily claimed that the EU had pulled a fast one on the delegation."

About the researchers

Maria Buck studied History at the Universities of Lucerne and Innsbruck. In 2018, she became a staff member of the DACH project "Issues with Europe - A Network Analysis of the German-speaking Alpine Conservation Movement (1975-2005)", which received funding by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) in the amount of EUR 195,000. Project lead Patrick Kupper is Professor for Economic and Social History at the University of Innsbruck. He completed his studies at the University of Zurich and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

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M. Buck, K. J. Schmidt: Special Section: Technical Infrastructures, Transnational Protest Movements and the Uses of Counterexpertise, in: NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaft, Technik und Medizin, Vol. 30, Heft 3/2022 R. Aschwanden, M. Buck, K. J. Schmidt: The Swiss Alpine Conservation Movement (1980-2005): Possibilities and Limitations of a Two-Mode Network, in: Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte, Vol. 72/1, 2022