After the EU Court of Justice ruled against Germany’s plans to introduce a highway toll, the debate about an EU-wide motorway toll has once again been ignited. An analysis by Herbert Vytiska.
On 18 June, the Court of Justice of the EU opposed Germany’s plans to introduce a highway toll, in a judgment welcomed by Austria.
“The judges of the European Court of Justice have declared the German car toll to be discriminatory, which fortunately created greater clarity,” said Austrian Transport Minister Andreas Reichhardt.
In his view, the Court’s ruling was a “clear call to ensure fairness and a common internal market”.
The Luxembourg court essentially held that Germany’s legal framework for the introduction of a charge to use federal roads including motorways (the ‘polluter pays’ principle) contravened EU rules.
This was because Germany provided in parallel that owners of vehicles registered in Germany qualified for relief from a motor vehicle tax that would be at least equivalent to the amount of the charge.
The Court held that this constituted indirect discrimination on grounds of nationality and infringed two key EU principles: free movement of goods and freedom to provide services.
For German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer of the Christian Socialist Party (CSU), the decision was “regrettable” and “surprising”.
He did not expect the decision because the public prosecutor had agreed on all points regarding the German toll project and because the European Commission already announced that it would accept these plans.
Alexander Dobrindt, who, as secretary-general of the CSU, had made introducing the toll a priority during the 2013 national elections, could not comprehend the court’s judgment either. He said that “double standards had been applied”.
However, they are not showing signs of giving up. For instance, Scheuer immediately set up a task force to draw conclusions from the ruling and examine possible new approaches.
The CSU in particular, which is currently facing criticism across the board, is being supported by a large Austrian company. Georg Kapsch, head of the Federation of Austrian Industries, criticised Austria back when it took legal action against Germany’s plans.
He called Austria’s decision to file a complaint “complete nonsense”.
“There are no positives for Austria. How do we benefit, if they [the Germans] are not allowed to set this up?” he said.
It seems obvious why Kapsch is excited. In a 50-50 joint venture with CTS Eventim at the end of 2018, TrafficCom was paid €1.6 billion for a period of 10 to 15 years to manage the German toll system.
Austrian MEPs welcomed the judgment
The leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in the European Parliament, Othmar Karas, said that “with this ruling, the Luxembourg judges confirmed that Germany’s planned highway toll would clearly indirectly discriminate EU citizens on the basis of their citizenship – as we said from the outset.”
“We are relieved that the Court of Justice did not set a dangerous precedent with regards to discrimination, although this was hoped for by some,” he added.
Andreas Schieder, the recently appointed leader of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) in the Parliament, added that “the Court of Justice has become the airbag for European car drivers. Because the same laws should apply, regardless of the number plate.”
Barbara Thaler, the Austrian MEP responsible for transport policies, went one step further. “As a matter of principle, we are in favour of an EU toll system that is as uniform as possible,” she said.
It could become an issue for the new Commission. There are actually several different toll systems across Europe and all previous attempts to harmonise them have failed.
On the one hand, this is because toll revenues are often used to plug budget holes and nobody really wants to do without them. On the other hand, the toll discussion also overlaps with climate protection goals, as reforming transport policy is generally regarded as being the actual goal.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]