The German government suffered a defeat on Thursday (18 June) when the European Commission launched a challenge to its planned road toll. Federal Minister of Transport Alexander Dobrindt defended the proposal, saying it was a matter of national sovereignty.
Dobrindt’s toll, which the German parliament approved in March, would charge foreign drivers up to 130 euros a year to use Germany’s Autobahn motorways, which until now have been free. They could also buy short-term passes costing up to 30 euros for 10-day to two-month periods.
German drivers would also pay the toll, which was set to start in 2016 but will now be postponed. However, Germans would receive a corresponding reduction in automobile taxes. Critics say that contravenes EU rules for equal treatment.
“A toll system can only be compliant with European law if it respects the fundamental treaty principle of non-discrimination,” European Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said in a statement.
“We have serious doubts that this is the case in the final text of the relevant German laws. We are now acting swiftly to clarify these doubts through an infringement procedure in the interest of EU citizens,” she said.
The German government has two months to respond to Brussels. If the two sides are unable to find an agreement, the case may eventually be settled in the European Court of Justice.
‘It’s not up to Brussels to decide’
The Commission had already warned that the German scheme was in violation of EU rules, saying it discriminated against other European drivers.
But Dobrindt insisted that the toll did not violate European laws.
“Nobody is being discriminated against, all motorists will pay the infrastructure levy,” the minister told Bild.
“It’s not up to Brussels to decide what we’re doing with the motor vehicle tax, that’s a matter of national sovereignty.”
Dobrindt said that Germany would wait for the final court ruling, adding that Brussels’ decision meant that the toll probably could not be introduced in 2016 as originally planned.
The German transport minister argued that the new motorway toll would generate some 500 million euros for the state each year, which would be invested in transport infrastructure.
A European Commission spokesman said it took note of Dobrindt’s announcements and welcomed them for the time being.
Dobrindt and his Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) party had long wanted foreign motorists to pay tolls on motorways because they say it is unfair that foreigners travel for free in Germany while Germans have to pay tolls in neighbouring countries such as Austria, Switzerland and France.
While the toll is a pet project of the CSU, Merkel’s bigger Christian Democrat (CDU) sister party and the co-governing centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) were long sceptical.
Merkel and the SPD finally agreed to the measure provided it conformed with EU rules that bar discrimination against foreigners.
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, CSU chief 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."
- European Commission statement on the German road toll scheme (18 June 2015)