German foreigner vignette: need to know

Everything you need to know about the upcoming German ‘foreigner vignette’ and why, despite nobody taking it seriously, it will happen.

11.01.14: this article has been updated following new developments this week. See below.

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A3 Cologne-Frankfurt. No speed limit. It's un-German not to.

German roads (A3 Cologne-Frankfurt). When they are good they are very, very good. But when they are bad they are horrid.

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The story starts in Bavaria, southeast Germany. Drivers there couldn’t help noticing that when they ventured over the borders of neighbouring Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic they had to buy a vignette windscreen sticker in order to use the major roads and motorways.

Meanwhile, drivers from those countries could happily cross into Germany without making any direct contribution to the upkeep of the roads.

For years this rankled with the Bavarians to the point that the ruling Christian Social Union (CSU) party picked up on what it recognised as a sure fire vote winner.

The CSU is the sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The CDU doesn’t fight elections in Bavaria; the CSU doesn’t fight them in the rest of Germany. Traditionally they join their votes together after General Elections.

The CSU has dominated Bavarian politics in the post war period apart from 2008-2013 when it was forced to rule in coalition. Soon after the 2008 election the CSU leadership resigned in disgrace after which the undoubtedly charismatic Horst Seehofer was elected state president with 90% of the vote.

Under Seehofer the CSU has regained its rightful position. He won an outright majority again in this autumn’s elections with one policy held above all others: the foreigner vignette.

So important was the vignette to Seehofer that he said it was a deal breaker in negotiations to form the national government, even with Angela Merkel’s CDU party.

Not many people took him seriously, especially after Merkel said in one of the leaders’ TV debates that ‘with me there will be no car tax’.

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The CSU's campaign poster for the foreigner road tax. Do we need to translate?

The CSU’s campaign poster for the foreigner road tax. Do we need to translate?

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By hook and by crook though Seehofer got his way. His man Alexander Dobrindt has been appointed transport minister and the vignette was written into the Coalition agreement.

The foreigner vignette does face some challenges if it is to start in 2016 as promised, like possible legal action by Austria and other parliamentary priorities. The least of them however is that it is somehow discriminatory.

The idea is that when car taxes move from being the responsibility of the individual states to the federal government in July 2014 it will be reconfigured. The tax won’t increase overall – another of Merkel’s promises – but part of it will be designated as a charge to use the motorways. Thus foreign drivers will only pay the same amount as German drivers.

It’s a fiendishly clever idea, possibly pinched from the British government. From April all foreign trucks will pay a daily charge to use UK roads. Domestic hauliers will pay too but have the money rebated through lower Vehicle Excise Duty.

The European Commission hasn’t objected to the British scheme and has half-nodded through the German proposal (see update below). It regards vignettes as a blunt instrument because, unlike road tolls or congestion charges, they cannot be used to ’influence driver behaviour’ in any specific way. But it is very keen to introduce the idea of road charging generally presumably in the hope that later on schemes can be made more sophisticated.

Maybe that’s what Seehofer hopes too because the €1bn in projected revenues from the foreigner vignette over five years – based on a pro rata €100 annual fee – won’t even scratch the surface of the real issue: the parlous state of German roads.

Decades of under investment mean that half the country’s bridges, 20% of the autobahns and 40% of federal highways are in need of repair, according to the latest figures, out of a total network of 650,000km.

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Update 11 January: on 7 November 2013 the European Commission’s Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas (@SiimKallasEU) tweeted, ‘User charging is the future for infrastructure funding. I welcome the public debate in DE [Germany] on usefulness of #PkwMaut.’ (PkwMaut is a toll/vignette for light vehicles – there is already a sophisticated electronic truck toll system up and running in Germany).

This was interpreted in many quarters as at least qualified support for the idea. Kallas had met with the then German Transport minister and been reassured the vignette would not conflict with European law. However, reports this week suggest the Commissioner might not be so happy after all. He was quoted in Bild (via EurActiv.com) saying, ‘There should not be any free vignettes or rebates for German-registered cars alone.’

We contacted the Commissioner’s spokesperson to establish – particularly in light of the UK scheme – the precise nature of the objection. We’ve yet to hear back. Indeed, while the Commission has been very helpful on many other occasions, we’ve always struggled to get answers to questions on the German ‘foreigner vignette’.

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