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Every European state has a provision in its laws to use expropriation from private persons when it is necessary for the public good. However despite the presence of such laws European politicians seem to be reluctant to use them and one often hears of protracted negotiations with local land owners over the construction of new roads and buildings.

So why isn't expropriation used as the default route for every public project on private land? What is even the point of negotiating with private owners if the law allows the government to take whatever it pleases, as long as it provides just compensation?

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    Note sure this is the whole story but two things come to mind: Avoiding protests and avoiding court cases. Expropriation is only the beginning of the story, it can be followed by a long and costly appeal process. To the extent that there is any reluctance, it might be an attempt to save time and money. – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 18:14
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    @JonathanReez So what happens if after 10 years the court decides the government didn't need to seize your land, after they built the freeway? What if they had to demolish your house to make room for their construction project? – ThisIsNoZaku Aug 21 '17 at 19:02
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    @JonathanReez Not necessarily and, in fact, mostly not. In some jurisdictions, appeals can freeze everything. – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 19:26
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    I'd suggest that there's a really simple answer: the people in government want to be re-elected. That is going to be more difficult if they are perceived as trampling on people's rights. – jamesqf Aug 22 '17 at 5:34
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    Maybe it's just because we like to pretend we're better than the average dictatorship in how we treat our citizens, their rights and their property? Just because the law allows it, or can be amended to allow it, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. – Erik Aug 22 '17 at 7:05
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In the United States, this is called eminent domain.

What is even the point of negotiating with private owners if the law allows the government to take whatever it pleases, as long as it provides just compensation?

I think that you aren't fully considering the phrase, "just compensation". If they just go to the courts and "take" the land, then they have to argue legally over the "just compensation" required. That can require just as much time and negotiation as getting agreement from the sellers directly.

If they get agreement from the sellers, then they don't have to argue just compensation in court. They've already agreed on it.

Even if this process is slower, it is less risky. If you invoke eminent domain early in the process, it is possible that the courts will award a high "just compensation" for the land. And you are guaranteed high legal costs. If you wait, you can use it just on a few properties, with lower legal costs. And the earlier agreements serve to set the price of the remaining properties. This makes it less risky.

In the US, the Kelo v. City of New London case allowed eminent domain in an expansive fashion. Which then caused a number of laws to be passed limiting it. A similar result is certainly possible in Europe. Use of power by the government can result in the government power being reduced.

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    I cannot speak for the other countries in the European Union but in France, there is no class action. This means that they would have to negotiate with every single private owner – Taladris Aug 22 '17 at 8:14
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So why isn't expropriation used as the default route for every public project on private land? What is even the point of negotiating with private owners if the law allows the government to take whatever it pleases, as long as it provides just compensation?

Let me show you the associated problems with the example of Germany. There the law does not allow the government to take what it pleases unless under certain specific circumstances.

The constitution (article 14) strongly emphasizes the integrity of owned property but also says that property should be used toward the common good. This article of the constitution explicitly says that an expropriation is possible but also that it needs a reconciliation of interests and opens up recourse to the courts to decide the height of the compensation. The required reconciliation of interest is often interpreted as leaving expropriation as ultima ratio.

For example, the government first has to try to come to a amicable agreement, for example by buying property on the free market.

This means three things:

  • There are high legal barriers for expropriation. The integrity of owned property is held high and even though expropriation is possible, you have to have a really good reason and no other possibility.
  • It can take some time to follow all the regulations and then also to agree on a just compensation possibly in court.
  • People/voters just may not like it very much.

All in all it means that expropriation is not unheard of (for example whole villages were expropriated in favor of coal mining and during the financial crisis of 2007-2010 the expropriation of a whole bank was considered) but also not used as default route.

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I think it is mostly used as a last resort, because most countries have some sort of private property rights (don't know the correct English term) for its citizens. Even thou the state can legally expropriate land, they want to make sure that their citizen don't feel like their rights are being taken away from them. They want to uphold that right for all citizens for as long as possible.

In many cases (at least in Scandinavia), the state only pays a fraction of what the land is actually worth in the free market, not enough to compensate the owner so that he/she can go ahead and buy some new land of equal size another place in the same region.

What are the consequences if people feel like their rights are not being protected by their own state? Let alone possible being let down financially as well?

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The ability is intended to prevent individuals from standing in the way of needed infrastructure improvements. The expropriation clauses are intended to provide incentive for otherwise stubborn people to negotiate in good faith with agents of the government rather than a tool to acquire things cheaply.

People in the government are resistant to use this tool more than absolutely necessary because abuse of the tool is likely to resort in the tool being removed from the tool box and punishments to those who abused it in the first place.

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