Seehofer testifies before committee investigating the ‘toll debacle’

Horst Seehofer before the inquiry committee: Despite concerns regarding European law, he wanted to get the toll through. [EPA-EFE | Clemens Bilan]

On Thursday (28 May), German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) testified before the investigative committee tasking with deciding on the responsibility for the government’s ‘toll debacle,’ which could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of euros. He said he was not aware of any  wrongdoing. EURACTIV Germany reports.

If he were still head of the CSU party, Seehofer would “absolutely” reinstate the toll for passenger vehicles, he told journalists before the committee started. He would only focus more on climate protection this time.

He also backed the toll to the committee, but conceded that he had pushed it through despite European legal concerns.

However, he stressed that Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer (CSU) had acted of his own volition when he signed multi-million-euro contracts with toll companies before final legal certainty had been achieved.

Like many political reverses, the car toll’s spectacular and, most likely, expensive failure began with an election promise. Before the 2013 federal elections, the CSU loudly and repeatedly called for a car toll, claiming it would help to finance urgently needed infrastructure projects.

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“Impossible under European law”

According to the election promise, the toll should only apply to foreigners. Although all drivers were asked to pay, German car owners got their money back via a reduction to car tax by the same amount.

Peter Ramsauer (CSU), then Transport Minister, told the investigating committee in mid-February that he had warned against this promise.

When the pledge was included in the CDU/CSU coalition agreement, Merkel and Seehofer decided “with their eyes open” that it was impossible under European law, said Ramsauer, because such a law would violate the European principle of equal treatment. Seehofer confirmed that Ramsauer had expressed doubts.

However, Seehofer had still insisted on the toll, he told the committee: “I was convinced that this would work.”

He added that he had often found that disputes with the Commission could be resolved in negotiations.

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Charges of embezzlement

The Commission gave the green light for the toll in 2016, and the Bundestag and Bundesrat passed in into law. However, Austria then took legal action. In the infringement proceedings, the European Court of Justice finally put an end to the toll in 2019.

Unfortunately, Transport Minister Scheuer had already signed contracts with various companies to control the toll in 2018. These companies are now demanding €560 million in damages for lost profits. Members of the Left Party have filed charges against Scheuer for embezzlement.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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