Delays Ahead

Amid Talk of Autobahn Tax, Chancellor Merkel Applies the Brake

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Transport minister Alexander Dobrindt's plans to tax car drivers have been widely criticized.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s roads are free for car users but there are competing proposals for a new tax and politicians disagree on how to move forward.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Plans for a road tax for car drivers were first suggested in July and a form of tax would have to be introduced by 2016 according to the coalition agreement of the current government.
    • The idea of the tax is controversial and supported by some Germans especially in Bavaria, as German drivers have to pay fees in Switzerland France, Italy and Austria for using the roads but drivers from abroad can use Germany’s roads free of charge.
    • In Europe, Germany is one of the few countries not to charge drivers for using its roads, along with Belgium and the Netherlands.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Chancellor Angela Merkel has calmed a fractious debate emanating from Bavaria by reassuring motorists that a blanket fee on all road users is not around the corner in Germany.

Alexander Dobrindt, the country’s transport minister from the Christian Social Union, Ms. Merkel’s sister party, in July proposed taxing auto drivers in Germany and levying a fee on foreign vehicles using Germany’s autobahns.

The plan provoked a rash of  competing proposals and disagreement in a contentious debate that had raged all summer.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister and a Christian Democrat like Ms. Merkel, criticized the road tax, saying it would be too complicated to process and could cause complications at Germany’s borders.

Mr. Schäuble proposed an alternative which would mean all road users pay an extra fee.

A further suggestion was made by the BGA, the Federation of German Wholesale, Foreign Trade and Services, to tax every kilometer driven on busy freeways.

The idea of levying a tax on roads originated in Bavaria. Mr. Dobrindt whose CSU party is based there, proposed charging drivers entering and exiting the country. The move would be popular among Bavarian voters especially those who live near to the borders who are annoyed by drivers from across the border motoring into Germany free of charge, while Bavarians behind the wheel have to reach for their wallets to hit Swiss and Austrian roads.

 

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Germany’s autobahns are free – for now. Source: Andreas Levers

 

Mr. Dobrindt’s proposal has proved controversial with much opposition even from within the CDU. Leading regional Christian democrat politicians have opposed the tax fearing an additional burden in border areas.

Following Mr. Dobrindt’s recent proposal, Merkel, driver of an Audi A8, promised that a road tax will come, but “further consideration” of the ideas was necessary.

Many are reluctant to introduce what seems “like charging an entry fee for people coming into Germany and nobody wants that,” said Jürgen Grieving of the car drivers’ association ADAC, Europe’s largest automobile club which opposes the tax.

The planned fee would apparently generate up to €600 million, according to the transport ministry. But critics such as Christian Lindner, chairman of the liberal party, have argued that the sum would be lower, between €200 and €250 million, and 30 percent of that sum could be eaten up by administration.

“We believe enough money is available to fix infrastructure issues on Germany’s roads,” Mr. Grieving said. “It just has to be distributed better.”

Any tax on car drivers needs to comply with three points, he said. It can’t mean more charges for German drivers who have already reached their limits. Any tax model would have to bring more money into the public purse. And it would have to conform to European Union law and make sure that there is no discrimination against people from other parts of the E.U.

Charges are already levied for truck drivers on German roads. The “toll collect” system was complicated to introduce and only launched in 2005 after much delay.

Beleaguered Germans already pay high taxes and many oppose the idea of paying more. Mr. Dobrindt assured the country’s drivers that the fee would be offset by an exemption to protect domestic drivers.

“Car drivers have reached their limits and can’t be subject to yet another tax. That’s clear,” said Mr. Grieving.

“The politicians even within the Christian democrat party can’t agree on the idea and they have taken the current proposal apart,” Mr. Grieving said. “It’s very hard to know what will happen next.”

“It seems like charging an entry fee for people coming into Germany and nobody wants that.”

Jürgen Grieving, Expert at car drivers' association ADAC

Leading Christian democrat politicians from Baden Wurttemberg, Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine Westphalia criticized the idea of taxing all roads for border regions.

Ms. Merkel has already been criticized for her centrist style and she needs the support of voters in Bavaria. But the idea of the fee is complicated, as it restricts Germans’ proudly defended sense of freedom on their freeways. Like gun control in the U.S., the Germans react sensitively to attempts to restrict this. Although it is a myth that drivers can speed without limits up and down the country – only on 65 percent of roads lack a speed limit – driving is a closely defended business.

“The different models for the tax are on the table but they’ll be subject to a lot of consideration,” Mr. Grieving said. “I don’t see a fast solution. On the other hand, it’s written into the coalition agreement and will need to be introduced by 2016.”

Historic change is ahead, though visibility is limited as to what. For now, wherever they’re headed, drivers can keep enjoying Germany’s freeways free of charge.

The author is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Contact: williams@handelsblatt.com

 

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