EU takes Germany to court over planned road toll

Alexander Dobrindt (L) [International Transport Forum/Flickr]

The European Commission referred Germany on Thursday (29 September) to the European Court of Justice over a planned road toll that it says discriminates against foreign drivers.

Germany’s parliament approved a law last year to introduce a road charging system that would have granted vehicles registered in Germany a corresponding deduction from their annual vehicle tax.

The decision will deal a blow to the the Bavarian centre-right Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party of Chancellor Merkel’s CDU. The Commission has sparred over the law with Germany’s Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt (CSU), whose party made the controversial road tolls part of its party platform. CSU leaders even inserted a promise to introduce the law into the governing agreement with the centre-left SPD in 2013.

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Berlin’s spat with the European Commission over its planned road toll scheme escalated yesterday (12 January) during a visit to Brussels of German Transport Minister, Alexander Dobrindt.

The system was set to have started this year but was postponed after Brussels challenged it on the grounds that that foreign drivers would have to pay the toll with no compensation.

Under the plan, approved by the German parliament in March 2015, Germany would have charged foreign drivers up to €130 a year to use Germany’s Autobahn highways, which until now have been free.

Drivers could also have bought short-term passes costing up to €30 for 10-day to two-month periods.

The Commission said that an EU country was free to introduce road charges for goods vehicles and passenger cars, but, if it wanted foreigners to pay, then the charges must apply to all.

It also said that the prices for short-term vignettes, intended for vehicles registered abroad, were disproportionately high in some cases.

“Despite numerous exchanges with the German authorities since November 2014, the Commission’s fundamental concerns have not been addressed. The Commission is therefore referring Germany to the Court of Justice of the EU,” the Commission said in a statement.

EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc is expected to propose new legislation on road tolls in spring 2017. MEPs have asked Bulc to introduce a requirement for tolls on trucks that would charge based on CO2 emissions as an incentive to reduce pollution.

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German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt has championed new road tolls that would charge vehicles driving on German roads. Many Germans are frustrated over road tolls in neighbouring countries (including France, Austria and Switzerland), while foreigners use German highways for free.

The Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's Conservative CDU, has been requesting for many years that higher road tolls be introduced for foreign car drivers using German roads. This was included in the coalition agreement, which 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."

But the scheme irked the European Commission because vehicles registered in Germany would be reimbursed for those charges, while vehicles registered outside the country would not be.

The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against the law and is determining whether it discriminates on drivers based on nationality, something that would be illegal under EU law.

In December 2015, the Commission requested more information from the German government about the law. Germany has until 10 February 2016 to respond. Minister Dobrindt has criticised the Commission for delaying the law, now set to go into effect in 2017. He maintains that the tolls are compliant with EU law.

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