The European Commission intends to launch infringement proceedings against Germany this week over the country’s passenger car tolls, causing Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt to attack the “sweeping criticism from Brussels”. EurActiv Germany reports.
In the conflict over his plans to introduce a passenger car toll in Germany, Dobrindt has sharpened his tone towards the European Commission. In Monday’s (15 June) edition of the Augsburger Allgemeine, he denied the executive’s legal competence to challenge the legislation, which has been approved by the Bundesrat and Bundestag, Germany’s upper and lower houses of government.
Lowering the motor vehicle tax and simultaneously introducing the toll is up to the Federal Republic because national independence on taxation is one of the fundamental principles of the European Union, the conservative politician said.
“In and of itself, the assumption that the EU could interfere with the motor vehicle tax in Germany is wrong,” Dobrindt told the newspaper. Car taxes “clearly fall under national sovereignty; Brussels has no competence at all to comment on or change anything in that area”, he said.
In the tolling conflict, Dobrindt also criticised Austria, which announced plans to file a separate complaint against Germany before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The Transportation Minister accused the country of practicing its own discrimination against foreign car drivers with road tolls.
“Unequal treatment can also be observed in Austria, in the Felbertauern Tunnel for example. There, foreign drivers pay €10 while drivers from any part of Austria pay €4,” Dobrindt pointed out.
In addition, when the passenger car toll was introduced there in 1997, Austria raised the commuter allowance for domestic taxpayers at the same time, he said.
Even when the UK implemented a truck tolling system, it considerably reduced its motor vehicle tax on lorries.
“The EU had no objection to either case,” he told the Augsburger Allgemeine. Dobrindt, who hails from the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), said he has no understanding of the “sweeping criticism from Brussels”.
He said that in 2011, the European Commission explicitly recommended introducing user financing as an alternative to financing through taxation, in a white paper on transportation in the member states. “An alternative means no added burden, after all,” the CSU politician said.
Further, the minister seemed convinced that the German passenger car toll would withstand a legal dispute at the EU-level without any changes.
“We are not discriminating against anyone,” Dobrindt emphasised. “The infrastructure fee applies to domestic and foreign individuals equally.”
“If it really does come down to negotiations with Brussels, the other European tolling systems will also be up for discussion,” he stated, warning against far-reaching consequences for other countries.
A few days ago, Austria’s Transportation Minister Alois Stöger called on Dobrindt to “suspend introduction” of the traffic fee. At the EU Transport Council in Luxembourg, Stöger had debated the issue with EU Transportation Commissioner Violeta Bulc and she was very open-minded toward the Austrian concerns, the minister said.
In conclusion, Jean-Claude Juncker had spoken of considerable doubts over the legality of the tolling law. “As guardian of the treaties, the Commission must clear up this doubt with infringement proceedings, before the European Court of Justice if necessary,” Stöger argued.
A toll can only be in compliance with European law if it respects the fundamental principle of non-discrimination, Juncker told the Süddeutsche Zeitung a few weeks ago. It is doubtful whether this is the case in the tolling law, he contended.
In its session this Wednesday (17 June), the European Commission is expected to decide whether to commence infringement proceedings against Germany over its road toll law. In that case, Germany would first receive a letter of formal notice and would have eight weeks to respond.
If concerns are not dispelled by then, it could result in a suit against Germany before the European Court of Justice.
Many Germans are frustrated over road tolls in neighbouring countries (including France, Austria and Switzerland), while foreigners use German highways for free. But in Germany the price of fuel is higher than in any neighbouring country, suggesting that Germany gets its toll from car drivers in a different way.
The Christian-Social Union (CSU) which is the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's CDU, has been requesting for many years that higher road tolls be introduced for foreign car drivers, using German roads. But such plans have been rejected by the European Commission multiple times on the grounds that preferential tolling amounts to discrimination based on nationality.
During the latest coalition negotiations late last year, head of the CSU Horst Seehofer insisted that a toll on foreign drivers be included in the final agreement. In the coalition agreement the new German government promises to introduce "a motor vehicle toll in compliance with EU law, by which owners of cars not registered in Germany would help finance additional spending on the highway network. Cars registered [in Germany] should not suffer higher costs."
Augburger Allgemeine (German language): "Wir diskriminieren niemanden": Dobrindt hält an Pkw-Maut fest
German Ministry of Transportation and Digital Infrastructure (German language): Minister Dobrindt in an interview with the Passauer Neue Presse "My concept creates more justice"
German Ministry of Transportation and Digital Infrastructure (German language): Bundestag approves infrastructure fee and expanding lorrie toll