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German Truck Toll Runs Into EU Roadblocks

The European Commission is scrutinizing Berlin’s plan to impose a road toll on trucks using German autobahns amid its own proposals to standardize road toll charges throughout the EU.

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Coming soon on German autobahns: over-the-road electronic toll systems

After clashing over EU competition, anti-trust and merger rules, regulations over chemical policy and more recently a German can deposit system, Brussels and Berlin have fallen out over yet another nitty-gritty issue.

The latest in a string of run-ins involves the German government’s plans to impose a new toll on trucks traversing German autobahns, slated to come into operation by August 31 this year.

EU: Berlin scheme could violate fair play

On Wednesday the European Commission opened a formal review of the system amid fears the German government’s plans to provide €600 million ($684.3 million) in tax rebates to the country’s truckers who refuel in Germany may constitute illegal state aid.

The commission believes the move could favor domestic companies over competitors from other EU countries. "In principle the German truck toll cannot start until we have finished our negotiations," EU commissioner for transport, Loyola de Palacio, said in Brussels.

Gilles Gantelet, a spokesman for de Palacio stressed, "We are of the opinion that Germany should attempt to put the system on hold." The EU commission has said its review of the German case could take up to a year.

Though it remains unclear what steps the EU commission might take should Germany fail to postpone its truck toll, sources in the commission are reported to have said the matter could go as far as the European Court of Justice.

Berlin says it's playing by the rules

Berlin, however, is sticking to its stance despite the commission’s threats.

German Transport Minister Manfred Stolpe has pointed out the implementation of the road toll system – an average of 12.4 cents per kilometer depending on truck size and level of emissions which Germany hopes will yield annual revenues of €2.8 billion – is not in danger. "The German government is going to do anything it can to convince Brussels that the regulation is in line with EU law," the minister said on Thursday in Berlin.

Stolpe said the planned tax rebates amounting to €600 million were meant to harmonize practices between truckers who buy fuel in Germany, where it is highly taxed to help subsidize the environment and road system, and those who fill-up in lower-tax countries. He emphasized the rebates would be paid to all transport companies that pay the autobahn toll and buy fuel in Germany, regardless of their country of origin.

The EU commission is concerned that non-German trucking companies have had problems obtaining the transponders, which monitor their travel on the autobahns. However, the German government has said it is paying €650 million to a private transport consortium to set up and operate satellite-monitored on-board systems in trucks well before the August 31 deadline.

The first of its kind satellite system will use automatic toll-tracking devices built over the roadway at regular intervals to check whether drivers have activated their on-board systems. Trucks without the systems will be able to pay at gas stations.

Berlin probe coincides with EU's own road toll plan

The EU commission’s probe of the Berlin case was launched at the same time Brussels unveiled its own proposals for a European system of road-charging for commercial vehicles in an attempt to ease the growing problem of road congestion and open up new sources for funding transport infrastructure.

The commission wants Berlin to hold off on the introduction of its road toll system to allow it to examine its pan-EU scheme proposed by de Palacio.

The plans, which will allow member states to spend a share of the proceeds from road tolls on rail links for the first time, would apply to some 60,000 kilometers of trans-European roads and are part of a wider drive to boost Europe’s transport infrastructure.

At present EU countries can only levy charges that reflect the cost of building and maintaining motorways and are not allowed to "cross-subsidize" by charging road users to pay for railways.

"We are not trying to penalize road transport, we are trying to encourage other forms," de Palacio said at a press conference in Brussels this week. "If you start beating the road lobby, you’re going to undermine the competitiveness in Europe and lose jobs. We want everything to work," she emphasized.

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