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Bavarian conservatives get boost from EU on foreign-driver road toll plan

Traffic is seen at the motorway A40 in Essen August 22, 2013. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender
Traffic is seen at the motorway A40 in Essen August 22, 2013. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

BERLIN (Reuters) - Bavarian conservatives have received an unexpected boost from Brussels for a controversial plan to impose a motorway toll on foreign drivers, giving impetus to their push for the idea in German talks to form a coalition government.

The idea faces strong opposition from the other parties in the talks, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). But Bavarian conservatives say they won't join the government without such a toll.

Under the proposal, which went down well with many Bavarian voters in state and national elections last month, all cars on the motorway would face a charge, including foreign drivers, while a separate tax on German car owners would be reduced.

In effect, German drivers would end up paying the same amount as previously, while the extra income from foreign drivers would be spent on infrastructure projects.

Opponents of the scheme say it could breach EU law as it may discriminate against foreigners. The main problem is linking the road toll system and the tax system, as that could be seen as discriminatory.

But in a surprise move, the EU's traffic commissioner said the plan might be possible.

In a written answer to a question, Commissioner Siim Kallas said a reduction in car tax implemented at the same time as the introduction of a charge on all cars would represent "no discrimination on grounds of nationality".

He emphasized that the toll would have to be proportionate to infrastructure usage, meaning Germany would have to ensure that fees could be imposed for shorter periods than just a year to make sure drivers in transit did not face too big a burden.

German transport ministry sources reckon the toll could bring in about 800 million euros a year.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission took a more cautious stance, however, saying there was "no green light" on any future plans for road tolls in Germany.

"We have not seen any concrete plans and that's why we cannot say whether they are compatible with European law or not," she told reporters, adding that it was a principle of European law that there should be no discrimination.

"What is not possible is that you interlink the two systems - the road toll system and the tax regime," she said.

Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU) has argued that without such a toll there would be no investment in infrastructure, and without that it will not join any coalition.

Ilse Aigner, a CSU member leading negotiations on transport matters for the conservatives, said her party felt vindicated.

"Obviously these are signs that it is positive, and that was our view," she said.

CSU General-Secretary Alexander Dobrindt was even more forthright. "The car toll for foreigners is coming," he said.

However, it is still far from clear whether he is right.

The SPD kept up its resistance. Some SPD lawmakers said the costs of implementing the system would be too high and that ultimately it would be expanded.

"We remain skeptical that this is the right way," said senior SPD member Hubertus Heil.

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers, Markus Wacket and John O'Donnell in Brussels; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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