Unable to resolve their differences despite months of negotiations, Brussels and Berlin will now face off in Europe’s highest court over a toll levied on drivers in Germany.
The European Commission, the E.U. executive body, plans to sue Germany in the European Court of Justice over the planned car toll, alleging that it discriminates against foreign drivers.
For Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats, the new court case marks an embarrassing new chapter to a controversial law that she never wanted in the first place, but which she agreed to implement to placate her conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.
The nationwide toll, which was supposed to go into effect earlier this year, would be levied on both domestic and foreign-registered cars in the form of a pass to use Germany’s highways. But a reduction in the motor vehicle tax would offset the toll for the owners of cars registered in Germany.
The leader of the opposition Green Party's parliamentary faction, Anton Hofreiter, called on the government to ditch the toll in response to the European Commission's lawsuit.
The European Commission filed a proceeding against the toll last year, delaying its implementation. Brussels claims the toll violates E.U. law because the reduced motor vehicle tax effectively frees German drivers from the toll while foreign drivers are left to shoulder the financial burden.
Perhaps surprisingly, German Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt actually welcomed the lawsuit as “good news.” Mr. Dobrindt, a member of the Bavarian CSU and a long-time champion of the law, said the commission had “drawn out the proceeding for far too long.” He now expects the court to rule that the toll is “consistent with European law.”
Berlin estimates that the toll would raise €500 million ($560 million) to help pay for the construction and maintenance of Germany’s highway system, which plays a crucial role in connecting E.U. member states.
Critics, however, doubt the toll would bring in that much money. German drivers would pay on average €74 while foreign drivers would pay between €5 and €30 in a staggered system that ranges from 10-day to two-month passes.
The controversial toll is the result of a political compromise. Bavaria’s state premier, Horst Seehofer, who leads the arch-conservative Christian Social Union, promised voters during the 2013 federal election campaign that he would raise infrastructure money by imposing a toll without burdening German drivers.
The state of Bavaria – which shares borders with Austria, the Czech Republic and Switzerland – stands to benefit the most from the toll. Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats agreed to support the toll as a concession to the Christian Social Union, which also plays a key role in the coalition government.
The Social Democrats, the junior partner in Ms. Merkel’s coalition government, opposed the measure. But they too agreed to back the toll in exchange, winning concessions on implementing the minimum wage and capping rising rents in exchange, and predicting the toll would in any case never pass muster with Brussels.
“The toll was never a child of the Social Democrats,” said Martin Bukert, the party’s transportation expert.
The leader of the opposition Green Party’s parliamentary faction, Anton Hofreiter, called on the government to ditch the toll in response to the European Commission’s lawsuit. The VCD Transportation Club condemned the toll as “ecologically senseless, anti-social and xenophobic.”
Frank Specht is based in Handelsblatt’s Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market, trade unions and politics. To contact the author: email@example.com