German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer is facing renewed calls to resign after two companies said they were suing the government for EUR560 million (£620 million) over his failed plans to introduce a road toll in Germany that would disproportionately impact foreign-registered cars. "It is no longer justifiable why Andreas Scheuer continues to be transport minister," the Green party's parliamentary leader Anton Hofreiter told the Rheinische Post newspaper. "The fact that the chancellor hasn't long since sacked a minister with such an abysmal record shows the weakness of the coalition." Oliver Luksic, MP for the Free Democratic Party (FDP), described the companies' lawsuit as a "knock-out blow" for Scheuer. "With his actions, the minister has not only made an investigative committee necessary, but as even caused even bigger damage than previously thought."

Scheuer's protracted attempt to introduce a road toll came to an ignominious halt in June, when the European Court of Justice ruled that his plans contravened EU anti-discrimination law, because they included a tax cut for cars registered in Germany.

The German government spent years trying to introduce a highway toll system

Road toll fiasco Following the ruling, Scheuer canceled contracts he had made with the companies Kapsch and CTS Eventim in 2018, leaving the government open to massive compensation claims. In a statement to the stock market, the companies argued that they are entitled to 12 years' worth of lost profits for the toll operator Autoticket, a firm they founded together to take over the contract, as well as costs they had incurred so far and compensation claims from subcontractors they themselves had hired.

In July, Scheuer admitted to a parliamentary committee that the contracts with Kapsch and CTS Eventim had been canceled because of the ECJ ruling, though in a video statement released on Thursday he argued that the companies had not "met their contractual commitments." "We reject with all firmness the operators' demands," Scheuer said. "The numbers are wrong and have no basis whatsoever." The dispute could be tied up in courts for years.

But damning for the minister was a document quoted in Die Welt newspaper on Friday, which showed that the ministry's own lawyers had warned Scheuer in January that the operators could sue the government for lost profits for the full 12 years of their contracts. Suddenly a secret The debacle has set off an avalanche of criticism from opposition parties, who blasted Scheuer for signing massive government contracts before his toll plans had legal clarity.

Scheuer also drew outrage last week from parliament after he recategorized documents related to the autobahn toll affair as secret. According to a report in Der Spiegel from last Monday, parliamentary workers had to watch while Transport Ministry officials "who seemed a little embarrassed" came into their offices and wheeled boxes of documents away in handcarts. The 52 files had recently been demanded as evidence and were due to be discussed in public hearings last week.

The Federal Audit Office has also accused the Transport Ministry of violating rules on how government contracts are granted. Read more: Tolls on the autobahn? Germany counts cost of failed plan

A new crime? The left-wing movement Aufstehen ("Stand Up"), along with former Left party leader Sahra Wagenknecht, has collected 22,000 signatures for a petition demanding that parliament pass a law making the misappropriation of public money a crime, specifically citing Scheuer. "In any normal business Scheuer would long since have been sacked and would be in court," the petition's statement read.

But Scheuer still has the backing of those in power. In a recent Q&A session in the Bundestag, Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that Scheuer was "doing a good job," a phrase echoed later by Ralph Brinkhaus, the conservative Christian Democrats' parliamentary leader. Meanwhile, Markus Soder, Bavarian state premier and leader of Scheuer's party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), criticized the controversy on the grounds that the parliamentary committee had yet to actually come a conclusion.

The other half of the government coalition, the center-left Social Democrats, has been more circumspect, criticizing Scheuer but not demanding his resignation.

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    The sky's the limit

    The only European country without a general speed limit on most parts of its highways, Germany nonetheless has an excellent network of motorways. They are generally well-maintained, inviting you to explore them. The minimum age for obtaining a driver's license used with a legal guardian present in Germany is 17.

    An unrestricted car driver's license can be granted at age 18.

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    Bracing yourself

    According to statistics by ADAC, Germany's national automobile association, traffic jams increased by around 15 percent in 2016 as compared to the previous year.

    That's a lot for a relatively small country. The increase resulted from both more cars on the highway, and more construction sites. So brace yourself for more time and stress in the car, especially around big cities.

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    Tailgaters

    Even when you think you're soaring down the autobahn, you may get the distinct impression it's still not fast enough.

    Some German drivers may drive right up behind you and try to "push" you over. They may even flash their headlights to rattle your nerves. You aren't supposed to block the "fast" lane -- the aim being to only use it for passing.

    But don't let pushy drivers bully you!

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    Smile for the camera!

    Watch out for speed cameras!

    They are used widely in Germany, from the autobahn to inner city areas. These box-shaped devices are installed next to the road, and will often catch you unawares. Should you be driving over the speed limit, a ticket will be sent to your house, complete with a picture of you at the wheel and the license plate confirming your offense.

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    Cell phones a no-no

    Holding a cell phone in your hand while driving is an absolute no-no. If caught, you could be fined 100 euros (£124) and get a one-point penalty against your driver's license.

    Penalties spike up if you cause an accident, and you may have your license revoked. Fines were raised in 2017. Investing in a hands-free car kit is smarter.

    Penalties also apply to bicyclists using their cell phones.

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    Make way for help

    The same thing goes for not making way for emergency vehicles.

    Once traffic jams up, you are required to create a lane for ambulances and police, even before you see the flashing lights behind you. If not, you could be fined at least 200 euros (around £250) and get points on your license. The emergency lane is always between the far left and the rest of the lanes.

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    Be on the alert

    You are also required to set up a warning signal should you break down or have an accident. This means placing an orange metal triangle on the road, donning a fluorescent jacket, both of which you must have in your car.

    You must also have a first-aid kit stored in your vehicle.

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    Driving under the influence

    In Germany, there's zero tolerance for beginners, as well as for professional drivers. There's a 0.05 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) limit to driving under the influence. Bicyclists may not exceed 0.16 percent.

    Penalties start at a EUR500 (£623) fine, points off your license and even a one-month license suspension. Best bet: don't drink and drive!

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    Snow tires

    Snow tires are required once streets become slick with slush, ice or snow. In Germany, the rule of thumb is that this can occur anytime between October and Easter. Should you not have snow tires installed on your car and still drive on slippery streets, you could be fined and have points taken off your license.

    Without proper snow tires, your insurance may also not cover an accident.

  • German Transport Minister blasted over autobahn toll debacle

    How to navigate the German autobahn

    A relaxed approach

    To navigate both the German autobahn and city streets, the best approach is a zen one: take your time and don't let yourself get frazzled.

    Besides, with an expansive train and public transportation system in the country, you might not even want to hop into your car, but board a train and put up your feet!

    Author: Louisa Schaefer


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