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EC acts against the discrimination of drivers from other Member States in GERMANY and the UK

Recently the European Commission has stepped up legal action against specific road charging systems in Germany and the United Kingdom which do not respect the EU's Single Market rules.

Recently the European Commission has stepped up legal action against specific road charging systems in Germany and the United Kingdomwhich do not respect the EU's Single Market rules. The Commission supports the "user and polluter pays" principle according to which drivers pay road charges that can then be used to support infrastructure maintenance. Different models of road charges are possible and, indeed, most Member States in the EU have put such charges in place. It is the Commission's duty – as Guardian of the Treaties – to ensure that such charges do not discriminate between domestic and foreign drivers in the EU. In a number of other cases, including Austria, Belgium, Hungary and Slovenia, the Commission has helped Member States to devise road charges in a way that complies with EU law. In two outstanding cases, however, the Commission must now take action to protect drivers from discrimination based on nationality.

The first case concerns Germany's law of 8 June 2015 introducing a road charging scheme for cars. At the same time, Germany passed a law ensuring that only vehicles registered in Germany benefit from a deduction of the road charge from their annual vehicle tax bill. This 1:1 deduction of the vehicle tax from the road charge would lead to a de facto exemption from the charge, exclusively for cars registered in Germany. The Commission believes that this arrangement discriminates against drivers from other Member States for two reasons. First, because only German users will not effectively pay the road charge, as their vehicle tax bill will be reduced by the exact amount of the road charge. And second, because the price of short-term toll passes, which are typically bought by foreign drivers, is disproportionally high for certain vehicles.

Despite numerous exchanges with the German authorities since November 2014, and many suggestions by the Commission on how to render the German scheme compatible with EU law, the Commission's fundamental concerns have not been addressed. Therefore, the Commission launched an infringement procedure against Germany on 18 June 2015 which went into the second stage recently. In its Reasoned Opinion of 28 April, the European Commission calls on Germany to bring its legislation into line with EU law within two months. Otherwise, the Commission may decide to refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU.

The second case relates to the introduction of a time-based road charge for Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) in the United Kingdom in April 2014. After thorough analysis, the Commission has recently set out its concern that the HGV levy discriminates against non-UK hauliers. In its letter of formal notice – the first stage in infringement proceedings – the Commission has requested further explanations from the UK authorities. The United Kingdom has two months to respond to the concerns put forward by the Commission. Should the Commission consider the reply unsatisfactory in addressing these concerns it will consider moving to the next stage of infringement proceedings and sending a Reasoned Opinion to the UK.


A key requirement to non-discriminatory road charges is that all users pay the same charge for using roads. It is the prerogative of Member States to decide to introduce road charges – for Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) and for passenger cars. If a Member State wishes to make foreign users pay for the use of national roads, that charge must apply to all users - foreigners and own nationals. Introducing a road charge for foreigners only would be discriminatory.

Compensating only national users by a 1:1 reduction of vehicle taxes, as it is intended in the case of the time-based charges (vignette) in Germany and in the UK, means that national users are de facto not paying the road charge.  There are ways to avoid such discrimination, including:

  1. A Member States could decide to revise vehicle taxes for nationals when introducing a road charge based on criteria other than nationality, e.g., based on environmental costs and/or on infrastructure charges. Using such criteria would avoid a 1:1 link between the road charge and the vehicle tax and, therefore, a discrimination of foreign users.
  1. Distance-based charges, as opposed to time-based charges, are proportional to the number of kilometres driven. Indeed, the Commission is advocating proportional, distance-based user charges which better reflect the actual costs of use and pollution in line with the "user/polluter pays" principle.  Introducing a distance-based charge rules out a blanket vehicle tax compensation for all users because such taxes are, by definition, not proportional to the distance driven.

Commission action protecting drivers across the EU

  • In 1990, the Commission brought Germany to the Court (Case C-195/90) when adopting a road charge for HGVs ('Gesetz über Gebühren für die Benutzung von Bundesfernstraßen mit schweren Lastfahrzeugen') as simultaneously a reduction in vehicle taxes was introduced, which would discriminate foreign users. The Court ruled that this went against Art 76 of the EEC Treaty why the charge was abandoned.
  • In 1996, the Commission insisted that Austria introduce a weekly vignette for passenger cars in order not to discriminate tourists and other occasional users, who otherwise would have had to buy a bi-monthly or an annual vignette for visiting or crossing Austria.
  • In 2008 and in 2014, the Commission insisted that short-term vignettes for passenger cars in Slovenia, usually bought by foreigners, are price proportional to long-term vignettes, usually bought by nationals. In this way foreigners pay a fair price when spending only a few days in Slovenia.
  • In 2012, the Commission issued a Communication (COM(2012) 199 final) providing guidance 'on the application of national road infrastructure charges levied on light private vehicles'. The Communication provides guidelines on the introduction of non-discriminatory vignette schemes.
  • In 2013, the Commission adopted a negative Opinion, based on Eurovignette Directive, on the Hungarian road charge for HGVs (HUGO). Hungary subsequently addressed the concerns of the Commission. More generally the Commission is notified and is assessing compliance with EU law for new all distance based road charging schemes for HGVs being implemented.  
  • In 2014, following exchanges with the Belgian authorities during which a number of issues were solved, the Commission adopted a positive Opinion on a Belgian tolling arrangement for HGVs. The new tolling arrangement came into force in April 2016.

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