How should drivers pay for their roads?

It took a ruling by the European Union’s Court of Justice to strike down a German law setting motorway tolls on foreign cars. The Court, on June 18, said the fee discriminates against foreign vehicle owners and violates EU rights guaranteeing free movement. Berlin will have to scrap the scheme, which spared German drivers from paying the autobahn toll for passenger cars, which was due to start in October 2020.

The ruling brought into focus the different approaches across the EU to road tolls. There is no single system, and authorities often try to juggle different aims with their measures. The earliest tolls were taxes aimed at recouping the costs of the road infrastructure. But recent measures also try to use fees to pay for the environmental costs, or to combat congestion by putting a price on car use.

The Court decision is notable in more than one way. Firstly, it goes against the advice, issued in February, by the Court’s own advocate general, who said Austria’s complaint against the law was based on a “fundamental misunderstanding” as car owners outside Germany do not have to pay German motor vehicle tax.

Secondly, it goes against the grain of EU regulation that leaves it up to the European Commission to settle such questions. Back in 2016, the Commission had also raised concerns about the German toll scheme, and took Berlin to the same Court. But then it dropped the case after it reached a compromise with Germany to connect the tax rebate to a reward scheme for cleaner cars. Austria, however, picked it up, backed by the Netherlands. A Dutch study said in 2017 that Germany’s plan would cost Dutch drivers up to €100 million a year and hamper cross-border business.

This dispute has erupted as the EU is holding a broader debate about road tolls. As it happens, Austria is among the many European nations that have a motorway toll system – with a sticker that is stuck to the windscreen over the course of up to a year. The Swiss, Czechs and Slovenians have similar schemes.

France and Italy have a different toll system, based on distance driven rather than time taken: their tolls are paid at booths that are placed at the start and end of motorway sections. But even here, there is a difference between them: fees in Italy are almost double the price drivers have to pay in France. And while travelling on Italy’s motorways is expensive, its investments are low in comparison with those of fellow EU nations.

It is not surprising then, that the Commission is trying to encourage road charging systems. It prefers a distance-based system that charges drivers per kilometre, arguing that it makes drivers rather than society at large pay for use of infrastructure.

Earlier in June, EU Transport Ministers meeting in Luxembourg took stock of progress on plans to revise the Eurovignette road charging directive for heavy goods vehicles, which could be expanded to vans, buses and passenger cars. MEPs also back distance-based charges, which they say can help reach emission reduction targets, and last October voted for the measures. Most member states say the requirements limit their flexibility, so the measure is stalled at the moment.

Until the EU agrees a common format, member states will continue pursuing their own schemes. However, as Germany has found, whatever scheme is agreed, it needs to be fair.