German government shows cracks over autobahn speed limit | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.12.2019

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German government shows cracks over autobahn speed limit

Angela Merkel's coalition government showed another fault line over the Christmas holiday: her conservative transport minister petulantly dismissed Social Democrat calls for an autobahn speed limit.

The German coalition government is embroiled in a fresh row over imposing a speed limit on the autobahn, an old controversy that has been whipped into new life with the urgency of the climate crisis.

Leading members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), junior partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's centrist coalition, have accused conservative Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer of an "obstinate blockading attitude" on the issue, after his ministry posted a tweet on Christmas Day that once again underlined Scheuer's antipathy to the idea.

"The Bundestag has rejected a speed limit with 498 to 126 votes," the tweet quoted Scheuer as saying. "Traffic should flow as well as possible — at night when driving is open and at peak time, e.g. Christmas. That's why we would like to control traffic intelligently, digitally and flexibly — without bans."

Several Twitter users, opposition politicians among them, spotted that the photo used to accompany the tweet was apparently taken in Switzerland, where highways have a speed limit of 120 kilometers per hour (75 miles per hour).

Despite voting with the rest of the coalition against a speed limit in October, the SPD chose a more confrontational leadership in December and has decided to bring the proposal of a 130 kph speed limit back onto the agenda in talks with Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the latter being Scheuer's party.

Read more: Everything you need to know about the German autobahn

Andreas Scheuer

German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer is sick of the speed limit debate

Who decides government agenda

"A speed limit on our autobahns is good for climate protection, helps safety and spares the nerves of motorists," SPD leader Saskia Esken said, before adding that Scheuer was "not in a position to unilaterally decide all of the coalition's business."

She went on to suggest that the minister had made his comments to deflect from the debacle over his failed plans to introduce a toll on Germany's highways, which has resulted in a massive lawsuit against the government.

SPD deputy leader Ralf Stegner also criticized Scheuer's sudden intervention in the debate, accusing the minister of having a "stubborn blockading attitude."

"The whole of Europe and almost all civilized countries have a speed limit," he told the Handelsblatt newspaper. In addition, such a step was a "small but simple contribution to climate protection."

Germany remains the only European Union member state with no speed limit on its highways, with most countries on the continent capping speeds at 120-130 kph. The CSU, which usually holds the Transport Ministry when there is a center-right government in charge, has consistently resisted the idea of imposing a limit. 

One of Germany's biggest environmental organizations, the Environmental Action Germany (DUH) has called for a 120 kph limit on autobahns and an 80 kph limit on German country roads, which now have a speed limit of 100 kph. The organization has calculated that this would save up to 5 million tons of CO2. The Netherlands is already planning a lower speed limit for similar reasons.

Some travel agents in the United States and China have used Germany's lack of a speed limit as an incentive for motoring tourists. Meanwhile, a survey carried out by public broadcaster ARD in October found that a small majority of Germans, 53% to 45%, were in favor of a 130 kph speed limit.

Read more: Will Germany use speed limits to cut carbon emissions?

Autobahn traffic jam

Environmentalists say a speed limit would immediately cut CO2 emissions

Coalition cracks

In his Christmas Day interview with the DPA news agency, Scheuer dismissed the debate irritably. "We have much more prominent tasks than to put this highly emotional issue, for which there is no majority, in the shop window again and again," he said.

He added that Germany currently had a speed control system: Around 30% of German autobahns — the stretches with higher volumes of traffic and accidents — already have some kind of speed limit, and in any case most accidents happen on country roads, he argued.

Scheuer said he was more interested in introducing an "intelligent" speed limit system that could control traffic at critical points.

"There's a difference between whether a stretch of road is free or you're driving on a highly used stretch on Friday afternoon before Christmas," he said.

The Green party's bill in October only received support from the socialist Left party, and was rejected by the CDU/CSU, the pro-business Free Democratic Party, and the far-right Alternative for Germany.

As is normal for an opposition bill, the SPD voted with the coalition, and the Social Democrats similarly failed to force through a speed limit in this year's negotiations over the government's "climate package" — a series of climate legislation measures introduced by the government this year.

But new signals from the party's slightly more left-wing leadership of Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans point to a closer alignment with the Greens and the Left party on a number of issues. This could point to a left-wing alliance at Germany's next general election, scheduled for 2021.

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