Why Old Europe Needs A New Approach To Infrastructure
It's time to overhaul the Old Continent's roads, bridges, airports and electrical systems. And like it or not, private investment has a role to play.
PARIS— With its crumbling roads, deteriorating railroads and undersized telecommunication networks, the Old Continent has never been more aptly named.
Indeed, on various fronts and in many different European countries, much of our key infrastructure is looking downright haggard. And according to experts, the situation is unlikely to improve. If European countries don't start to invest heavily, they could, for instance, face a significant airport capacity deficit in a few years.
At a time when former developing nations are making major public investments — precisely so that they can drop their "third world" label — Europe seems like it longer can or wants to shell out money on infrastructure worthy of its standards. The roads, bridges and wires that connect Europe's people, businesses and cities barely cut it any more. And we know why. Indebted and weakened by years of crisis, European countries have relied on post-war infrastructure and facilities dating back to the "50s and "60s.
Renewed investment in major infrastructure will inevitably depend on sharing the burden.
In too many sectors, rather than reinvest, we did the bare minimum to maintain it. Further complicating matters are vocal minorities who manage to mobilize against tunnels, airports or power stations, and ultimately make enough noise to derail them. More than one much-needed public works project has been nipped in the bud this way.
Unfortunately, politicians who are elected for short terms are often reluctant to fight for expensive projects that risk being completed once those who authorize spending have already left the scene. But to properly cope with growth — and the changing needs and demographic dynamism driving it — we'll need to make serious efforts again.
Disused railway in Paris — Photo: Céline Harrand
Between the CDG Express, a planned project to connect Charles de Gaulle Airport and central Paris by rail, and the Grand Paris, a huge metro and jail expansion project, France (among others) has shown that inaction is not necessarily the rule. Europe needs more large-scale investment along these lines while avoiding the temptation to approve "white elephant" projects that only serve to satisfy the egos of certain elected officials.
That may also mean bringing private investors on board. Public-private partnerships are controversial, as evidenced by motorway privatization in France. But at a time when states are fiscally limited, as is the ability of tax payers to contribute even more, renewed investment in major infrastructure will inevitably depend on sharing the burden, including with private entities. Our quality of life and Europe's competitiveness depend on it.