The German Autobahn toll scheme: its effects on the border regions

by: in Law

Amidst the public debate on the potentially discriminating impact of the German toll scheme for passenger cars and the expected revenues, border regions are raising their voice about the potentially negative impacts on cross-border interaction. A closer look reveals that the impacts could be economical, ecological and social in nature. As part of its annual cross-border impact assessment, the ITEM Expertise centre is doing research on the expected effects in the Meuse-Rhine Euregion.

With the implementation of the toll scheme now adopted by the German Government and Parliament, what are the potential effects for the German-Dutch border regions? And what does the toll instrument mean for European integration and the harmonization of future toll systems in the EU?

Many EU Member States have toll systems for passenger cars in place. One prominent system is the Vignette system, e.g. in Austria or Slovenia, where car drivers buy a vignette for a certain period of time, which has no relation whatsoever to the number of kilometers driven. The other prominent system is distance-related toll on sections of motorway, like in France or Italy. The German federal Government decided to implement an infrastructure charging system, i.e. toll, for passenger cars in line with the first model. As a consequence, foreign car drivers will have to buy a Vignette in order to drive on the German Autobahn. Although both foreign and domestic car owners will have to pay the toll charge, the latter will obtain tax relief through a deduction from the national vehicle tax of at least the same amount as the toll charge.

Current debate
The introduction of toll has been causing major controversy in Germany for years. Initially, only one smaller regional party of the present coalition, the CSU from Bavaria, advocated the instrument. Meanwhile, two issues are still being pushed by the many sceptics: whether the toll scheme will actually generate substantial revenues at all, given the intended tax compensations to German citizens; and whether the German toll scheme will not be seen as a breach of EU law due to its discriminatory effect on foreign car owners.

Surprisingly, however, the European Commission suspended the infringement procedure after recently agreeing with the German government on two main changes in the governing piece of legislation, the Infrastrukturabgabengesetz: firstly, a further differentiation of the vignette system from three to five vignettes, emphasizing the environmental impact of the toll; and secondly, lower prices for short-term vignettes, which are typically bought by foreign car owners.

Meanwhile, the accusation that the toll scheme would have a discriminatory effect on foreign car drivers persists in other forums: the European Parliament as well as several law professors in Germany and other European countries maintain their criticism and refuse to recognize in these changes a termination of the scheme’s discriminating effect.

In addition, there is still the broad expert discussion inside Germany about the estimated revenues and whether there will be any net revenues for German infrastructure at all.

Potential impacts on border regions
A closer look at Germany’s planned road toll scheme for private cars reveals that many negative impacts threaten the border regions:

Economically, German entrepreneurs close to the borders fear financial losses due to a declining number of customers from the neighboring countries.

Ecologically, the toll system is likely to affect the environment negatively by deflecting traffic from the motorways to secondary roads.

Socially, there is a real risk of relaunching the barrier effect on the internal European borders, of restricting cross-border interaction and of creating a sense of discrimination on the other side of the border. It could also spark the introduction of similar toll systems in the Netherlands or Belgium. The introduction of the German system certainly makes a European harmonization of toll systems, as recently advocated by the European Commission, more difficult. For citizens and companies in the Meuse-Rhine Euregio, this could mean having to deal with many different toll systems in the future.

ITEM's Cross-border Impact Assessment 2017

ITEM is currently working on a study of the potential impacts of a German toll system on its border regions, in the context of ITEM's 2017 Cross-border Impact Assessment.

To this end, ITEM is conducting a survey among car drivers from the Dutch and Belgian part of the Meuse-Rhine Euregio. We invite you to fill out this survey and would greatly appreciate your participation:

 Survey document: What is your opinion on the planned toll scheme for passenger cars in Germany?