A European Union united by road, but divided by tolls

Driving across Europe may not require a visa, but that doesn't make it free.

Bob Edme/AP/File
A truck drives past a sign reading 'You are entering southern France highways, Have a good journey,' near Bayonne, France, in Aug. 2005. Though united under a visaless travel scheme, Europe's nations have a variety of methods for paying for their roads' upkeep.

In Europe, it is possible to have an 11-day holiday during which you visit eight countries – and never show your passport once.

I just came back from a road trip through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Belgium, and since all the countries are part of the Schengen Agreement, crossing border after border was no problem.

But despite Europe's single-border area, you will still notice nationally distinctive driving styles and differences in road qualities. And one key thing we noticed in our travels is how we pay for using the roads.

Car owners in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium pay for the maintenance of the roads indirectly, through taxes. So as long as I stayed in those countries, I didn't have to pay extra to use the roads.

Most major highways in France and Italy, however, are toll roads. In France, you receive a ticket at the beginning of the toll road and pay when you exit, depending on how many kilometers you drove. In Italy, you pay a set amount for each toll booth.

I encountered a third option in two Alpine countries. Switzerland and Austria are among the nations that require foreigners to buy a "vignette" – a kind of road pass – the revenues from which are invested in infrastructure quality. Austria has a 10-day vignette available for €11.25 ($15), while driving any number of days through Switzerland requires the driver to buy a vignette for €35.95 ($48), valid for an entire year.

A leading German politician announced last Sunday that he also wants such a system. In an interview with the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag, Horst Seehofer declared that foreigners should start contributing to the German infrastructure by buying vignettes.

And Mr. Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian party Christian Social Union (CSU), made clear how important an introduction of vignettes is to his party: He said that the CSU will refuse to sign any coalition agreement after Germany's September elections if it does not include vignettes. Considering that the CSU is the traditional sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a critical part of her coalition government, Seehofer's demand for vignettes – which neither the CDU or its junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party, support – is not to be taken lightly.

On Sept. 15, elections will be held for the parliament in the German state Bavaria, and a week later for the federal German parliament. A breach between the two would impede Chancellor Merkel's chances of continuing her reign.

Seehofer pointed out that three countries near the southeastern German state of Bavaria – the Czech Republic, Austria, and Switzerland – all have a system of vignettes. According to the German newspaper Die Welt, Seehofer called it incomprehensible that the Bavarians have to pay for using the neighboring countries' roads, but those countries' citizens can drive the Bavarian (and German) roads at no extra cost.

Germany is not the only country where a debate has flared on foreign contributions for the use of infrastructure. Political negotiators in Belgium had planned to introduce such a vignette for foreign drivers. But the Belgian government decided to withdraw the plan last month, following protests from the Netherlands and the European Commission. A uniform European system for an electronic toll service has been proposed, but the road to such a common policy, as with other European measures, is long.

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