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Opinion

Opinion: A European dead-end street

A planned car toll for foreigners is the wrong way to repair German roads. The proposals by transport minister Dobrindt violate the very ideal of European unification, says DW’s Bernd Riegert.

One benefit of the European Union is that EU citizens can travel freely and that it allows for a customs-free exchange of capital, goods and services between the 28 member states. But unfortunately, there are still exceptions to this basic principle in the EU. One such exception are the tolls imposed by the 18 EU member states on highways, bridges, city centers and tunnels come in various forms and at different prices. Such medieval-style road tolls fundamentally violate European principles and ought to be abolished. The alternative could be that a standard toll be imposed in all member states. That would be a lot fairer.

German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt is now trying to become Europe's king of highwaymen by charging foreigners a kind of a blanket entrance fee to Germany. That's what the proposed system is: an entrance fee.

Under the proposal, drivers would need to buy a vignette if they wanted to drive on German roads. German drivers would have their vignettes offset against the German car tax. In essence, only foreigners would have to pay.

Under European law, this approach is questionable, to say the least. And it will probably not withstand the lawsuits already announced by Germany's neighbors, the Netherlands and Austria.

Dobrindt will fail

Bernd Riegert is DW's correspondent in Brussels.

The proposal also foresees a fee on border traffic on country and village roads between neighboring countries and Germany. Such measures will not exactly promote dialogue, and they verge on the grotesque in the so-called Schengen area, where passport controls have long been abolished. It's a step back to the past.

Hailing from Bavaria in southern Germany, the German transport minister has to deliver on an election promise he made during the election campaign in Bavaria last year. He has to impose a toll - by hook or by crook.

The plans are nothing but a populist measure. Dobrindt could also raise the money needed to repair German roads by imposing a higher petroleum tax, which already has to be paid by all drivers in Germany, both natives and foreigners. The planned road toll, which would come under the tile of a "charge on infrastructure," would be a tax. The minister could be honest and say: "We need money. We will raise taxes."

The only countries in the EU which also impose a medieval-style road toll on their entire road network are Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But: Czechs and Slovaks have to pay like everybody else - without receiving a tax break elsewhere. The German transport minister is therefore entering unchartered European territory - and he will fail.

"There will be no car toll with me," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said only just last year during the election campaign. But she has given in to pressure from her Bavarian sister party.

The grand coalition in Berlin is set to face tough opposition from Europe over the next few years.

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