EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger is still convinced of the benefits of a Europe-wide tolling system. But the devil is in the details, said a transport expert speaking with EurActiv Germany: Oettinger’s idea is nothing more than a “quick-fire solution”.
“Germany lies in the middle of Europe. We haven’t had border controls for a long time now. 28 different tolling systems would be grotesque in that case,” said German Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger on Sunday (20 April).
Instead of discussing a foreigner-only toll, Oettinger called for a uniform road charge within the European internal market, speaking to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag.
Oettinger is one of many who are keeping the car toll issue in the headlines in Germany. Ever since the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) tried to introduce a fee exclusively for foreign drivers, the toll has regularly been causing red faces among German politicians and problems between Berlin and Brussels.
But because discrimination against foreign drivers on German highways violates EU law, implementing such a measure is out the question – not only according to the Commission.
A uniform fee, on the other hand, would not differentiate between German and foreign drivers, and is exactly “in line with the Commission”, confirmed a member of Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas’ staff in Bild.
Regional prime minister of Schleswig-Holstein Torsten Albig added to the discussion making national news earlier this week. The politician from the Social Democratic Party proposed a special fee which would apply to all drivers in Germany. Speaking to Welt.de, Albig flatly rejected the exclusive toll for foreigners, proposed by German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt.
Easier said than done
But what may seem like a simple proposal becomes a complicated undertaking upon closer examination, said transport expert Götz Reichert from the Centre for European Politics (CEP).
Oettinger himself failed to mention what an EU-wide road charge could look like. Perhaps for good reason, as transport experts themselves are puzzled over how it could realistically be implemented.
Reichert is also not sure what to think of Oettinger’s suggestion. The Commissioner’s advance seems to be a quick-fire solution, he told EurActiv.de, because its implementation contains countless obstacles that would have to be cleared up.
Economically, though, Oettinger’s proposal could be useful, explained the CEP expert. Asking drivers to pay fees based on usage complies with the “polluter pays” principle. Whoever is traveling on roads and wears them down should be required to contribute to their upkeep.
But the long list of difficulties begins with asymmetries among the EU 28: the development, use and condition of the roads, as well as financing needs, are very different among individual member states.
In many EU countries, a tolling or vignette system already exists which is adapted to local requirements. In some EU member states, other sources of revenue exist to sustain the transport infrastructure, in Germany for example, the tax on petroleum, and the motor vehicle tax.
For this reason, one must consider whether it is really useful to lump all the countries together under a harmonised EU tolling system, Reichert said.
As a matter of fact, the Commission already answered this question itself two years ago, outlining nonbinding EU guidelines on car tolling. In 2012, Transport Commissioner Kallas emphasised that, “non-discrimination is a fundamental right under EU law. […] Road charging systems must be transparent and fair to all”.
In addition, fees must be “justified and proportionate” the Commission report said, also clearly prioritising distance-based tolling systems in contrast to vignettes. The former is fairer and more efficient, according to the Commission.
But in 2012, the Commission stopped at formulating guidelines, Reichert indicated, because imposing a uniform and binding regulation for the member states from Brussels contradicts the principle of subsidiarity.
A Europe-wide car toll like the one EU Commissioner Oettinger is proposing, he said, does not fit the bill.
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."