The global economic slowdown, coupled with rising public debt in the eurozone, has wreaked havoc with construction markets across Europe.
Construction companies across the European Union are paying the price with dwindling order books and bankruptcies. In weaker countries, such as Greece, the market has collapsed, having boomed unrealistically for some years. The middle-ranking countries are building at steady levels.
Towering over all of them, however, is Germany, Europe's largest construction market. Having avoided the worst excesses of the credit boom while maintaining its manufacturing sector, the country is enjoying a construction bonanza.
"At the moment, Germans are very optimistic about the future," says Ludwig Dorffmeister, a construction industry specialist at the IFO Institute research organization in Munich. With families earning good wages and confident about their future, money is flowing into new homebuilding, putting construction on an upward trajectory, he adds. "We did not have a [housing] price bubble."
For German construction companies, 2011 "was the best year since 1994," adds Heinrich Weitz, who handles forecasting at the Confederation of German Construction Industry (HDB), Berlin. After rising by more than 2% in 2010, Germany's construction grew 5.4% last year, says Weitz, who expects another 2.5% rise this year.
Such a performance seems miraculous compared to conditions in the EU's more troubled nations, such as Portugal, the Irish Republic and especially riot-torn Greece. Greek pay, pensions and public services are being slashed in austerity measures demanded by creditors, the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund as preconditions for tackling the government's high debt.
In Greece today, "there is no construction," says Bill Halkias, chief executive officer of the Attica Tollway Operations Authority, Athens. "Banks are not advancing any money, and the government is [providing] no new projects."
While general construction grinds to a halt, work on Greece's five vast contracts to extend and improve key national highways is at virtual standstill. Awarded by the government in the high-rolling years of the last decade, the privately financed contracts include operational sections of highways earning tolls intended to fund the new construction, valued at around $10 billion.