Including congestion as an "external cost," as for environmental damage and noise, could place a €414 billion burden on the EU economy each year, found a study carried out by ProgTrans, a transport consultancy group.
Germany and France, thanks to their landlocked location, were named as being the only two countries expected to make a profit from the charges, in the form of tax rebates.
Spain, Netherlands to lose out
Countries on the EU's periphery such as Spain and the Netherlands were consistently identified as being amongst the biggest losers by the study, regardless of whether minimum or maximum charges on HGVs were imposed by member states.
The study for the first time looked not only at the departure and arrival destinations of vehicles, but also the routes covered by road freight. Thus far that had been a grey area in assessing the impact of such a tax.
A report issued by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre had earlier this year claimed that the negative price impacts on hauliers would be dwarfed by the overall benefits of charging vehicles for their external costs (EurActiv 16/01/10).
"National finance ministers think they are sitting on top of a goldmine with Eurovignette, but they are not," said Michael Nielsen, general delegate to the EU for the International Road Transport Union (IRU), which sponsored the study.
The Council's proposed directive came under fire in the study because it failed to consider the lack of transparency over what proportion of external costs were already covered in the form of taxation by road users.
Revenues from road user charges are not reported in a majority of member states, raising the prospect of double taxation for road freight whilst other transport sectors escape unscathed.
"Are we paying 80% of our external costs or 110%?" Nielsen asked. "We need to know."
Belgian Presidency called for December agreement
Belgium's Mobility Minister Etienne Schouppe had placed the issue on the Belgian Presidency's agenda and hoped to seal a political deal on the Council's proposal by December, describing internalising the external costs of freight transport as "a key element of sustainable management of mobility".
"Is it worth keeping a proposal which will clearly not solve the externalities caused by all transport modes including rail, maritime and air?" Alexander Sakkers, the IRU's EU Goods Transport Liaison Committee president, asked however. "These proposals resemble flagrant discrimination towards the road freight sector," he stated.
The report's findings add a potentially divisive element to negotiations between transport ministers due to take place in October.
Nielsen argued that "what we are heading for is Cypriot citizens paying for the noise one of [Cyprus's] lorries makes driving past a German house".
A further concern remains among road users that vehicles could even "downgrade" to lighter models in order to bypass the charge, which applies to vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes, therefore possibly adding to current levels of congestion.
IRU members instead called for earmarking revenues stemming from charges already in place towards developing clean technologies or subsidising those member states expected to lose out from the levy.
"We don't mind paying for our externalities, as long as everyone else does too," they repeated, referring to the rail sector currently being exempted from the same tax burden as HGVs on diesel.
The extension of the thus far optional Eurovignette scheme to other countries could still enjoy public support, however. In 2000, Austrian citizens took matters into their own hands by blocking the Brenner Pass in protest at road congestion.
The European Tolling System, which some believe would not distort competition as tolls would be paid by all operators irrespective of their member state origin, was nonetheless referred to by a Commission spokesperson as being expected to come into force by 2012.