How policy conflict escalates: The case of the Oosterweel highway in Antwerp

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Through a case-study of the policy process over the contested Oosterweelconnection highway in Antwerp, this dissertation investigates how conflicts over public policies escalate and how governments should deal with conflict escalation. It concludes that when governmental actors try to negate conflict by setting in stone policies early in the decision-making process, rather than embrace conflict as a natural and possible productive part of policy-making and -implementation, conflict can actually increase and escalate. The dissertation highlights three mechanisms of conflict escalation.

Firstly, in the Oosterweel case, evidence was used in an attempt to put an end to conflict. Evidence did not end the conflict, however, but rather reduced the tolerance for ambiguity, making it more difficult for parties to appreciate policy positions that differed from their own. Secondly, in the Oosterweel case, further debate on alternatives to Oosterweel was ceased in order to satisfy procedural deadlines. Pressing for haste, however, did not benefit quick decision-making but instead made the policy-making procedure increasingly suspect. When parties distrust the policy-making procedure, and a substantive conflict escalates to a procedural one, it also becomes more difficult to settle conflict within these procedures. Finally, equating the Oosterweelconnection with serving the public interest and labelling those opposed to Oosterweel as obstructing the public interest also did not bring a solution to the public problem of traffic congestion any closer. Rather, because action groups felt dismissed by policy-makers, they took up arms more vigorously. As the conflict dragged on, parties were increasingly fighting each other, and a substantive conflict became not only procedural but also increasingly relational.

The dissertation concludes that governmental actors should focus less on quick project completion when they make and implement public policies, particularly policies of the megaproject kind. Instead, they should take advantage of conflicts as opportunities to talk with and listen to an engaged and creative public about how to make policies that best serve the many possible interpretations of what the public interest is.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


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