BERLIN — German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt’s political future is tied to the success of imposing a toll on foreign drivers using the country’s autobahns, and despite being slapped down by the European Commission he isn’t giving up on the idea.
“The tolls are coming,” Dobrindt told the Bild newspaper on Friday, following news that the EU and Germany are about to settle their dispute over introducing the payments. “I am confident that we will be able to close negotiations with the EU Commission on a positive note in November.”
Dobrindt told reporters he expected tolls to come into effect after national elections in the fall of 2017.
Imposing a toll on foreign cars using the country’s highways has become a key political issue in Germany, and especially in Bavaria, Dobrindt’s power base. Germans pay for the upkeep of the autobahns through their taxes, and there is growing resentment at outsiders using the roads for free. Germany is one of only a few EU countries not to charge for road use.
Getting a payment scheme functioning could also help Dobrindt’s political career: Last month, Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s premier and chief of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, announced he would not run for party chief next year.
That has opened up a succession battle ahead of regional elections in 2018, and Dobrindt is seen as a contender. Putting the long-awaited autobahn toll into practice, perceived as a Bavarian triumph over Berlin and Brussels, would boost Dobrindt’s standing in Munich.
But he still has political and legal obstacles to overcome before he can safely impose a toll.
The first hurdle is to ensure that German drivers aren’t saddled with extra costs. Merkel’s spokesperson said that Dobrindt’s new plans have the chancellor’s support — as long as German drivers won’t pay more.
Back in 2013, ahead of the last national election, the CSU focused much of its campaign on the issue, much to Merkel’s dismay. She promised “there would be no such thing as a toll for drivers.”
The problem for Dobrindt has been how to finesse the issue of imposing a toll that hits only foreigners without falling foul of EU rules barring discrimination based on nationality.
Germany’s parliament passed a toll law in 2015, which ran into immediate trouble with the Commission. The original idea would have allowed Germans to deduct the cost of the toll — as much as €130 a year — from their taxes, something foreigners can’t do. Brussels took Germany to the European Court of Justice in September over the plan, forcing Dobrindt to negotiate a compromise with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The two sides said this week they expect a deal later this month. News of an agreement was celebrated in Munich as a Bavarian victory. In an interview with German broadcaster ARD, CSU general secretary Andreas Scheuer said the toll would give his party “tail wind.”
The new plan calls for Berlin to link tax breaks to rewards for environmentally friendly cars, and to lower the cost of short-term passes for driving through Germany, according to sources familiar with the scheme. In return the Commission will drop the ECJ case.
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Now Dobrindt will likely have to push the compromise through the German parliament, and there are early signs of trouble from the Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in Germany’s ruling coalition.
During talks creating the coalition after the 2013 elections, the Bavarians forced through the toll, but both Merkel and the SPD insisted on adding the condition that it would only be introduced if it meant no additional costs for German drivers. Although SPD chief Sigmar Gabriel reportedly instructed his party to support the new plan, the SPD remains generally critical.
“The CSU should not plan any motorcade in Munich to celebrate — there is no breakthrough yet,” Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, the SPD’s deputy leader, told German news agency DPA on Friday.
In an interview with Spiegel magazine, Sören Bartol, the deputy chief of the SPD group in the Bundestag, said those changes would likely need to be approved by the parliament, and that his party would stick to what had been written down in the 2013 coalition agreement.
“This includes particularly that no German driver will have any additional costs compared to today,” he said.