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A spat between Sweden and Romania; a car with an insulting plates (when read in Romanian) caused the Swedish embassy to release this rather ambiguous statement:

The Embassy of Sweden in Romania would like to clarify that personalised car plates issued by the Swedish Transport Agency are valid for travelling in the European Union. Personalised car plates should always be accompanied by the official documents for both the original and personalised car plates [...]

– According to the Swedish Transport Agency, personalised car plates are valid to travel with, also outside the borders of Sweden.

– Owners of personalised car plates should bring the original plates, in order to have the possibility to change them in case the receiving country do not accept the personalised plate.

– Receiving countries decide what kind of vehicles that are allowed to travel in their countries. Swedish authorities can not influence what vehicles receiving countries allow on their roads.

So basically any EU country can refuse to accept the plates from another EU country? (Or is that refusal permitted only for personalized plates?) I'm guessing a single case of refusal might not violate any EU directives or laws (since Sweden didn't mention any), but is there something in them regarding the recognition of plates from other EU member states and acceptance of vehicles displaying them?

Otherwise one can imagine a nationalistic row in which one EU country decided to disallow all plates from another EU member. That would surely contravene something regarding free movement etc. But is there something more specific about car plates in EU laws or regulations with respect to their acceptance in other EU countries?

Wikipedia has an article on vehicle registration plates of Europe, but it doesn't say much beyond what the common format of the plates is. Based on that it might look like accepting another EU member's plates is entirely up to the host country. The Wikipedia page on the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, which techincally is not EU law, but is mostly applied in EU does say

One of the main benefits of the convention for motorists is the obligation on signatory countries to recognize the legality of vehicles from other signatory countries.

But does this actually imply the right to circulate? Are there exceptions allowed?

  • Are you sure this question is distinct enough from the other question on this subject? – Brythan Aug 18 '18 at 4:50
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    Yes. My question has nothing to do with free speech. It just asks if a EU country can refuse plates of another EU country. The other question has serious problems with its premises. The answers there about the constitution of Romania and what not, which are unlikely to be the level at which car plates are regulated. – SX welcomes ageist gossip Aug 18 '18 at 4:54
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I think the main point here may be the EU import laws for vehicles. Cars are subjected to excise taxes (normally registration taxes), and EU laws allow countries to force vehicles that come for other EU country to be registered locally.

If your vehicle stays in another EU country for six months or longer you have to register it in that country, as it becomes an import.

So, there are two options:

  • the car ends registered in Romania. The car has to drive with its Romanian plaques.

  • the car ends up registered both in Sweden and Romania (irregular, but AFAIK not illegal or impossible). That is more complicated and depends of lot of minor details of laws that were not prepared for the possibility. Possible outcomes:

    • The car retains its Swedish plaques.

    • The car retains its Swedish plaques but the Romanian police becomes a PITA (every time they see the vehicle they stop it to check its status -as, formally, those plaques belong to a Swedish vehicle that is overstaying-, forcing the owner to produce the Romanian papers and plaques).

    • There is a Romanian law that forces registered Romanian vehicles to use the Romanian plaques, so the car must use those.

    In any case, since the car is registered in two countries, there is at risk of the car being taxed both by Sweden and by Romania.

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  • We don't know from that story how long the car was in Romania, but this is a valid additional point. The Convention itself sets a limit of one year for a car to register locally and it seems to allow countries to set this limit at even less; from article 1: "a Contracting Party may refuse to regard as being "in international traffic" a vehicle which has remained in its territory for more than one year without a substantial interruption, the duration of which may be fixed by that Contracting Party." The [rest of the] Convention basically applies only to this "international traffic". – SX welcomes ageist gossip Aug 18 '18 at 15:25
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The Vienna Convention on Road Traffic (full text) indeed obligates its members to accept traffic from other signatories... as long as some conditions are met. Regarding the plate numbers, there are some requirements, but as far as I can tell, signatories cannot impose additional restrictions on the plates. They are allowed for instance to restrict vehicle weight etc. (in annex 1), but annex 2 which is about plates (says they need to be in Latin alphabet etc.) doesn't give much leeway. There's no exception allowed for insulting, hate speech or anything like that, so as long as the plate was registered in a member country the others' have the obligation to allow it to circulate.

So my impression is that Romania would be in violation of the Convention if it disallowed a car from another member state based on what its plate reads. The only recourse however would be (according to article 52 of the convention) a suit at the ICJ, which probably Sweden doesn't have the stomach for just based on this one case.

I don't understand why the Swedish embassy notes the distinction between personalized and regular plates. The Convention makes no distinction (does not cover the topic at all). The personalized plates with just Latin alphabet fully qualify under the text of the convention.

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  • Ref: distinction between personalized and regular plates - AFAIK, the owner cannot just have a personalized pair of plates and regular one must also be owned. Associated documents for all plates can be requested by the police. – Alexei Aug 18 '18 at 8:20
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    @Alexei: that seems to depend on the country. In some (UK, Germany) there's no duality of plates; one can however personalize the primary plate to some extent in both UK and Germany; see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanity_plate – SX welcomes ageist gossip Aug 18 '18 at 21:49
  • If you manage to get a Swedish license plate that means nothing in Swedish but is highly insulting in Romanian, I could imagine that Sweden doesn't have much interest in forcing Romania to allow it. – gnasher729 Sep 18 '18 at 14:56

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