Controversial revisions to EU rules on road tolls were adopted by the European Parliament on Thursday (17 February), clearing the final hurdle of a multi-year legislative odyssey, which started in 2017.
The new rules are set to greatly benefit the operators of hydrogen and battery-electric heavy goods vehicles, who will receive significant toll discounts, and to mostly bring an end to time-based charges in favour of distance-based tolling.
The compromise rules, hammered out following trialogue negotiations between the Parliament and EU governments last June, were fiercely contested by an unusual alliance of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Greens, who were both opposed to what they see as excessive loopholes in the text.
However, support from the centrist Renew group and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) saw the legislation get the green light at the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg. Member states now have two years to incorporate its provisions into national law.
The “Eurovignette” directive was tabled by the European Commission in May 2017 as part of its first ‘mobility package’, seeking to make the rules around charging of heavy goods vehicles more coherent and environmentally friendly.
Under the new rules, road charges for trucks travelling on Europe’s main arteries will mostly move from time-based to actual kilometres driven-based charging by 2030.
The move to the more accurate distance charging system aims to better enshrine the “user pays” principle into EU law.
However, the rule is not all encompassing – member states can keep the old time-based system, known as “vignettes”, for some sections of the road if they can prove scrapping it would lead to a major fall in revenue. Countries that opt to charge lighter vehicles such as passenger cars and vans may also choose to apply a time-based vignette.
Member states will be obliged to set different road charging rates based on CO2 emissions for trucks and buses, and on environmental performance for vans and minibuses as of 2026.
Road hauliers operating clean trucks can expect a 50% discount on road tolls by May 2023 – a significant financial incentive given tolling can run up to €25,000 annually per truck.
Heavy-duty vehicles’ contribution to air pollution will also be charged under the revised agreement. However, member states can petition the EU Commission for an exemption if the inclusion would lead to a substantial diversion of traffic with negative consequences.
During negotiations, the Parliament’s rapporteur – the S&D Group’s Giuseppe Ferrandino – pushed to have the revenue from tolls ringfenced to fund green mobility measures.
While the final text includes a provision for the earmarking of taxes for alternative transport infrastructure, it applies only to traffic congestion charges, which are not mandatory for member states to apply, and for toll mark-ups.
Governments did, however, agree to report publicly on charges levied on their territory, including how this revenue is being spent. This transparency requirement will become mandatory three years after the rule comes into force.
To ensure that travellers using the roads on an infrequent basis – such as tourists – aren’t subject to an eye-watering bill when crossing countries, lawmakers also put a price cap on the vignettes that passenger cars can be charged.
“A Copernican revolution”
The S&D Group was effusive in its praise, hailing the legislation as “a Copernican revolution in the Trans-European transport network”.
“The elimination of the vignette for heavy vehicles will standardise a system that is currently excessively fragmented. We will encourage the world of transport to use cleaner vehicles,” MEP Ferrandino said in a statement.
Bulgarian MEP Petar Vitanov, a fellow socialist lawmaker, hailed the adoption as a move towards “sustainable, fairer road transport”.
“This [road charging] framework is one of the main instruments of the European Green Deal and will be a turning point in road transport decarbonisation,” he said.
Clean mobility NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) took a similarly celebratory tone, calling the legislation “a watershed for green trucking” that will benefit the climate for years to come.
A “Wild West” situation
However, the list of exemptions attached to the rules has infuriated lawmakers from other political groups.
One of the most strident critics of the text, Austrian MEP Barbara Thaler (EPP), warned that the directive will create “a ‘Wild West’ situation on our roads”.
The Christian Democrat lawmaker argued that the text will allow successive governments to essentially override the rules.
Calling the legislation “half-baked”, Thaler asserted that it would “lead to a complete fragmentation of the internal road market, giving member states the possibility of altering their system to their preference after every election”.
“Infrastructure charges, environmental charges and CO2 charges – anything can be adapted and changed, anywhere and at any time. Everything would be possible – from almost no tolls up to excessive charging,” she said.
The Greens also expressed disdain for the legislation, contending that the exemptions mean the law largely ignores the polluter pays principle.
“The reform is content with exceptions and loopholes and prevents the urgently needed impetus for the transport turnaround and cements the unfair competition between the modes of transport,” said Green lawmaker Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg.
The road freight industry has also hit out the legislation. The International Road Transport Union (IRU), a global organisation representing bus, coach, taxi and truck operators, warned that the new rules would lump extra costs onto hauliers, potentially pushing up the cost of products brought by road.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]