UPDATE: Congestion charge reportedly taken off table
Plans to establish a congestion charge in Copenhagen – one of the primary goals of the Socialdemokraterne-led government – has been left by the political wayside, according to unconfirmed reports being carried by most media outlets.
After four months of mounting opposition to the plan to implement a toll on cars entering and leaving the city, PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt had announced earlier today that her government would present a new plan tomorrow, but gave no specifics.
It is now being reported that the government will earmark 750 million kroner for improved public transport, but that the congestion charge will not be a part of that plan.
— ORIGINAL STORY FOLLOWS —
An extraordinary meeting on Tuesday morning between the government’s top ministers to decide once and for all how to move forward with a controversial proposal to introduce a congestion charge around Copenhagen ended without answers.
The negotiation was billed by the media as a “crisis meeting” – with political commentators noting that the crisis was the standoff between the governing parties themselves. The highly publicized meeting was called in the eleventh hour after negotiations between the finance minister, Bjarne Corydon (Socialdemokraterne), and the tax minister, Thor Möger Pedersen (Socialistisk Folkeparti), broke down, according to Berlingske newspaper.
In her weekly press conference directly following the meeting, Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (Socialdemokraterne) repeatedly evaded journalists’ questions about its details with a single phrase: “There will be a really good solution tomorrow.”
As to whether the failure to reach an agreement signaled a deep division between Socialdemokraterne (S) and their governing partners, Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF), Thorning-Schmidt insisted: “Things are fine with SF. We have a strong relationship and a strong friendship. We have a lot of respect for each other.”
Notably, however, she refused to answer the press corps’ repeated questions as to whether she would again guarantee that the congestion charge (betalingsring) will definitely happen – a guarantee Thorning-Schmidt has made on at least six earlier occasions since the election, and as recently as February 7.
To that question, she again replied, “There will be a really good solution tomorrow.”
The controversy over the congestion charge has ranged far and wide, raising hairs and even lawsuits from the opposition, business organisations and the mayors of outlying suburbs. Local and regional S politicians even complained openly that their leaders in the government were not listening to their worries.
Ultimately, however, it could be disagreement between the once firm allies, S and SF, that kills the plan. Their apparent inability to solve their differences behind closed doors has exposed a lack of cohesion and weak leadership, according to several political commentators.
“This is crisis management in full, wide-open view and that signals a lack of punctual precision on the part of the prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt,” Berlingske’s political commentator Thomas Larsen said. “It means that every Dane now knows there is internal friction inside this government and all the media are following along minute by minute to see how the crisis will develop. First and foremost, Helle Thorning-Schmidt has failed as the governing leader to contain this conflict and lay the groundwork for an internal compromise.”
Rasmus Jønsson, a political commentator and professor at Roskilde University, agreed that the situation reflected poorly on the ministers, including the prime minister.
“The government itself is to blame for this circus, because all the politicians in the cabinet have been willing to comment on it,” Jønsson told Politiken newspaper. “The case has grown into a really chaotic procedure that lacks force and it could explode in Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s hands.”
The congestion charge, in conjunction with reduced ticket prices for public transportation, has long been a key political issue for SF. In the lead-up to the election, SF’s leader, Villy Søvndal, promised to subsidize public transportation tickets by 40 percent using income from the proposed congestion charge.
However, several months later, when a closer look at the numbers revealed that the congestion charge would only create 700-800 million kroner per year in revenue instead of the two billion kroner originally projected, and when local, left-of-centre politicians, as well as the opposition, banded together to block the project, S began to cool on it, reports Politiken.
Despite the mounting resistance to the plan and the revised revenue projections, SF has steadfastly held to its key campaign promise to introduce the congestion charge – a promise which Søvndal staked the election and his political reputation on.
A source in SF suggested to Berlingske that SF could exit the government if S decides to drop the project.
“We’ve been clear enough about what the consequences could be,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.
Other politicians within the party – who also asked to remain anonymous — dismissed that threat, however.
Regardless of what form the “really good solution” takes tomorrow, political pundits note that the cost to Thorning-Schmidt and her coalition government may already be too high.
“She should have made sure much earlier that they could come up with a solution. This controversy has simply been bandied about in the media for too long, growing larger and larger,” Larsen said.