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EU to mediate in road toll dispute

Vienna - Austria has filed a lawsuit against Germany's plans for a motorway road toll at the European Court of Justice, charging that the policy sets a worrying precedent of discrimination among EU countries.

Austria is the European Union's sharpest critic of the new German law, which foresees a toll on high-speed motorways, starting in 2019.

Transport Minister Joerg Leichtfried criticized the fact that German drivers are to be compensated for paying the toll through rebates on their motor vehicle taxes. Drivers from other EU countries – such as Austria, Italy and France – would be discriminated against as they get no such rebate and pay the full amount, he said.

Compromise with the European Commission

"Everyone will pay except for the Germans," Leichtfried told a press conference in Vienna.

Meanwhile, the Dutch Transport Ministry said the Netherlands wanted to join the Austrian lawsuit.

The German toll law is the result of a compromise with the European Commission, which forced Berlin to make the toll fairer for non-Germans by offering short-term passes to foreign drivers. However, nearly 2 million Austrian drivers use motorways in neighbouring Germany on a daily basis.

Leichtfried criticized the EU executive body for acquiescing to Berlin's plans and warned that other EU member states might introduce similarly discriminatory policies as a result.

"I would like to see an EU that is built on the strength of the law, and not on 'might is right,'" he said.

The road toll is a prestige project of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian allies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who are trying to form a new government after the recent election.

Major headwinds at home

"The toll will come," said a statement by the Berlin Transport Ministry, which is led by the CSU's Alexander Dobrindt.

However, the project still faces major headwinds in Germany, as potential coalition partners - the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats - have said that they plan to abolish the toll.

Germany's Social Democrats demanded that toll preparations should be stopped in light of the pending Austrian lawsuit.

It was not immediately clear if any other German neighbours would follow the Austrian lawsuit.

The Czech Republic's Transport Ministry said it would not go along.

The Dutch Transport Ministry said it would first have to study Austria's legal arguments before taking steps to join Austria.

In Brussels, the European Commission offered its help to solve the conflict between Vienna and Berlin.

"If asked, the commission stands ready to mediate between the two EU member states as we have done so in the past in earlier legal disputes between EU member states," Commission spokesman Enrico Brivio said.