Cross-border Impact Assessment 2017

Dossier 1: German car toll

European Court of Justice confirms ITEM research

In the judgement of 18 June 2019 the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in the case C-591/17 that the German ‘Autobahnvignette’ is in violation of EU law. Our summary can be found here.

The Court ruled that the infrastructure use charge, in combination with the relief from motor vehicle tax enjoyed by the owners of vehicles registered in Germany, constitutes indirect discrimination on grounds of nationality and is in breach of the principles of the free movement of goods and of the freedom to provide services. As regards the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of nationality, the Court finds that the effect of the relief from motor vehicle tax enjoyed by the owners of vehicles registered in Germany is to offset entirely the infrastructure use charge paid by those persons, with the result that the economic burden of that charge falls, de facto, solely on the owners and drivers of vehicles registered in other Member States.

This judgement is particularly good news for border regions, since the ruling also offers the opportunity to find integrated European solutions to taxation of air-pollution.

Entire dossier

The potential effects of the German car toll on border regions

Martin Unfried

Barbara Hamacher



In January 2017, the German Bundestag adopted the Infrastrukturabgabengesetz (Infrastructural Charges Act). In March 2017, the Bundesrat subsequently voted for the legislation to enter into force. The measure – known as the ‘car toll’ – is now expected to be introduced in 2019. The act provides that owners of foreign-registered vehicles for use on German motorways must purchase a vignette. The fees are scaled according to the duration of use and the vehicle emissions. Owners of vehicles registered in Germany must also pay this tax, but it will be written off against their motor vehicle tax. The act was adopted amidst a public debate about potential discriminatory effects on owners of foreign-registered vehicles and the estimated revenue for the state. This dossier deals with the potential effects of the toll on border regions, such as the Euregio Meuse-Rhine (EMR). In that regard, the Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross border cooperation and Mobility / ITEM carried out an online survey among car drivers from the Belgian and Dutch parts of the EMR, with 422 people responding to the survey. In addition, qualitative interviews were held with German experts in tourism, marketing, and retail. The German car toll could therefore have negative consequences on the EMR – the border region between Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium – something which was not considered in the federal government’s assessment. This relates especially to the unresolved legal issue of discrimination against EU citizens (1), the possibility of influencing future EU measures on tolls (2), the issue of financial losses for certain sectors in Germany and for the regional economy (3), the negative effect in terms of emissions and noise from traffic avoiding the toll (4), and the fundamentally negative effects on regional cohesion (5).


Legal uncertainty is not good for border regions

Continued legal uncertainty can be detrimental to border regions, particularly when it results in complaints being made to the ECJ. An analysis of the legal studies carried out to date shows that, despite receiving the green light from the European Commission, the ECJ could still issue a negative judgment. In such a case, this would mean years of legal uncertainty, which could create uncertainty for businesses (in terms of investment in the Euregio) and employers (in terms of professional training in the Euregio).


German toll is a hindrance to a European solution

The German toll could, in principle, hinder rather than facilitate the introduction of the uniform EU-wide toll system proposed by the European Commission. It is unlikely that a German government would replace the country’s own system just a few years after its controversial introduction (which works on time rather than distance). It is conceivable that there will be a knock-on effect, with Germany’s neighbours introducing their own systems. This could have highly negative consequences on border regions, which will particularly suffer with uncoordinated systems. This problem was recognized by the survey respondents. 63% are against Belgium and/or the Netherlands introducing their own toll and 44% objected to a uniform EU-wide toll system.

Change to driving habits with consequences on the economy and labour market

The survey suggests that people from neighbouring countries will change their driving habits as a result of the toll, limiting their journeys to Germany. 40% of respondents said that they will want to drive to Germany as little as possible because of the toll. After the toll is introduced, 11% of respondents who currently cross the border at least once a week will do so less. Out of those who currently cross the border at least once a week, 17% will limit the number of journeys made. The number of respondents who will only travel to Germany every now and then increases by 24%. The survey suggests that retail and tourism will be affected. According to the responses, the main reasons for journeys to Germany are primarily groceries (63%), recreation/leisure/eating out (58%), shopping (46%), and holidays (39%). These figures were corroborated by the assessments of German experts. At the Aquis Plaza shopping centre in Aachen, for example, many customers come from Belgium and the Netherlands – as many as 25% on Saturdays according to a 2016 survey. Businesses on the German side of the border therefore have good reason to fear a loss of revenue if their customer base is reduced.

14% of respondents stated that their place of work was in Germany. 29% cross the border into Germany for business meetings. Cross-border commuters have little chance of avoiding the annual toll fee. Public transport is not an option for most people. Businesses in Belgium and the Netherlands which operate across the border will have to factor in additional costs for the toll. The toll fee scale (older, more polluting cars pay more) suggests that cross-border commuters on a low income (often owning older cars) and small businesses (with few vehicles) will be disproportionately affected. In particular, working in Germany will be made more difficult for employees who have never had any experience with it. For them, the toll represents another financial and administrative barrier. In that respect, the toll can be considered an additional psychological barrier to cross-border work and an open cross-border labour market.


Change in driving habits can lead to higher emissions and noise in built-up areas

Drivers seeking to avoid the tolls can result in problems for the environment: 46% of respondents intend to use secondary roads once the toll is introduced, so they don’t have to pay the toll fee. This could place a considerable burden on frontier communities on both sides of the border in terms of emissions and noise problems. Due to traffic avoiding the toll, there could be a higher burden on local traffic, increasing noise pollution and the risk of an accident. The toll, which was intended as a measure to protect the environment, could actually end up harming it; the financial incentives to avoid the motorways are higher, especially for people with older cars with higher emissions.


Negative effects on Euregional awareness

With the introduction of the toll comes a sort of psychological barrier: 83% of respondents state that the border with Germany will be more palpable with a toll. 84% agree that cross-border mobility will be reduced by the toll. All things considered, the sentiment towards the toll is not a good one: 84% of respondents do not think the toll makes sense; 88% are negative or highly negative towards it. 64% say they feel discriminated against by the toll. This negative reaction in neighbouring countries can have a negative effect on cross-border interaction between citizens, clubs, businesses, and administrations. A key achievement of European integration has been to make border crossings straight-forward and instant. With a toll, people need to decide whether or not to pay it and, if so, for how long. A toll does not make border crossings straight-forward and instant, as border residents would like. Consequently, it could mark a step backwards for cross-border cohesion.