Merkel could postpone German tolling scheme

German autobahn highway near Frankfurt am Main. 2012 [Spiegelneuronen/Flickr]

A road toll near Frankfurt am Main. [Spiegelneuronen/Flickr]

Alexander Dobrindt had hoped to table his plan for a German toll on foreign car drivers before the parliament’s summer break, but according to media reports German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put on the breaks, saying the project first needs a green light from Brussels. EURACTIV Germany reports.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) is against drafting a plan for a road toll on foreign car drivers before the parliament convenes for the summer.

Earlier this week, Merkel blocked Federal Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt from pushing the project forward, saying it must first be approved by the European Commission. Instead, the minister should only submit key points for now, the Chancellor said, according to reports from Handelsblatt which cited sources from political circles.

>>Read: Germany stands firm on road toll scheme that irritates EU

“It does not matter whether the plan is presented before the summer break”, Merkel said, according to sources close to the Chancellor. Instead, Merkel said it is decisive that the conditions of the coalition agreement be fulfilled and comply with European law. The concerns of the European Commission have not been dispelled yet, she reminded.

Green light needed from the Commission

According to sources near the Chancellor, Merkel expects that the plan be given a green light from the European Commission first, before it is presented to the public. Merkel is calling for a “declaration of non-objection”.

Sources from the centre-right alliance consisting of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister the Christian Social Union (CSU) say Merkel does not want to continue a conflict with the Commission, as Germany has over the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG).

She is also warning politicians to keep in mind the upcoming regional elections in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg. Like Dobrindt, Merkel fundamentally rejects the prospect of placing another burden on car drivers, the sources say.

But a solution in the conflict with Brussels is still outstanding. The European Commission supports a universal toll on passenger cars. But the EU executive body is demanding that foreign car drivers not be discriminated against under the new system.

Harsh criticism from the opposition

Criticism for Dobrindt’s plans are also coming from the opposition in the Bundestag. Valerie Wilms from the Green Party said the planned toll only serves the purpose of cashing in on foreign car drivers.

The passenger car toll would bring in €300 million per year, she said, but the annual bureaucratic cost would also be around €300 million. It would be more practical and more lucrative to expand the user-pays-principle, Wilms contended.

Left Party politician Herbert Behrens cricised that the toll on foreign drivers is not compatible with EU law. There is not only a strong headwind coming from Brussels, he said, but also a “palace revolution” in the Ministry of Transportation: “Minister Dobrindt is standing in front of ruin.”

Government objects to media reports

But government spokesman Steffen Seibert rejected reports in the media claiming the Chancellor had put a veto on the project.

“Angela Merkel did not comment on a deadline for Dobrindt”, Seibert said. The toll project is clearly laid out in the coalition agreement, Seibert emphasised, saying the transportation minister will table a plan before the summer break.

The European Commission has already said it will support the existing project, Merkel’s spokesman said. But talks with Brussels will continue, he said, beyond the presentation of the draft.

Only five countries in Europe do not have a toll on passenger cars. Among them, Germany is the largest transit country. According to the latest government plans, the toll is expected to come into effect on 1 January 2016.

Dobrindt had originally said he would present his plans for a toll, which were clearly defined in the coalition agreement, before the summer break begins on 11 July.

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, head of the CSU 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."

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