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Will the Empire strike back in the next Dieselgate fight?

by Julia Poliscanova

The battle over the EU’s response to the Dieselgate scandal is drawing to a close. It pits the rebels advocating for more effective controls (the European Commission and Parliament) against the regressive forces of the Empire (some national governments and the car industry), writes Julia Poliscanova.

The final battle lines are now being drawn between co-decision makers on the European Commission’s key proposals in response to the Dieselgate scandal. On one side sit the rebel forces of the Parliament and Commission, supported by NGOs and consumer organisations, advocating for more effective controls and oversight in the system of approving new cars for sale. On the opposing side are the regressive forces of the Empire: the governments which are supported by carmakers in their determination to maintain the status-quo.

It is approaching 18 months since the Commission proposed to reform the Type Approval and Market Surveillance Framework Regulation. It aimed to strengthen and bring consistency to the ways cars are approved and to increase transparency. In April, the Parliament finalised its constructive position under the unlikely champion of British ECR MEP Daniel (Han Solo) Dalton who strengthened the proposal of industry commissioner (Princess Leia) Bieńkowska. Now it’s the turn of member states to hammer out a deal in Council where the constructive Maltese presidency has its work cut out in finding a compromise. So far, governments have been dragging their feet, reluctant to disrupt their cosy relationship with carmaker. The brooding presence of the German Chancellor (Darth Vader) casts a shadow over the proceedings.

At the heart of the disagreements are how much influence the Commission can have to ensure that carmakers stick to the rules and that these are consistently applied by national approval authorities. The Parliament’s EMIS enquiry into the VW emissions scandal showed that member states have dismally failed to enforce the EU emissions rules. Instead of protecting the public and consumer interests, they treat approving cars as a commercial activity or as a means to give competitive advantage to home champions. Parliament wants independent audits and to give the Commission the power to remove the right to approve cars if a regulator consistently fails to apply the rules correctly. The Commission suggested a weak system of peer reviews; but Council has passed the buck to technical services, or the labs national regulators use to perform approval tests. Many member states want the ability to continue to turn a blind eye to unlawful practices when it suits them such as allowing cars to turn down exhaust controls at temperatures below 17°C so carmakers can fit cheaper systems.

Battles are also expected over whether the Commission should have powers to fine carmakers who have broken EU laws. The Parliament also wants the Commission to be able to levy fines of up to €30,000 per vehicle, similar to the powers of the US Environmental Protection Agency. So do some countries, notably France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland. But many countries, including Italy, Spain and Poland, are opposed; as is Germany although it has still not finalised its official position. Germany is reluctant to accept any of the new controls and proposed reforms. This leaves carmakers unlikely to be sanctioned (and therefore more likely to cheat) as national regulators do not impose sanctions themselves yet they refuse to concede this role to the Commission.

Despite the same defeat devices being used by the Volkswagen Group in Europe and the US, VW has not been fined by Germany. Meanwhile, Skoda has not been prosecuted by the UK, Audi by Luxembourg, or Seat by Spain (where those vehicles were approved). Without independent powers at an EU level to penalise carmakers, regulatory capture and stalemate on emissions manipulations will continue.

Member states have also deleted provisions to limit how long an approved car can continue to be sold for after new regulations come into force. This was introduced to close loopholes that allowed cars using ozone-busting refrigerants to continue to be sold years after the deadline to end their use. A key demand by carmakers, the loophole will in the future be used to allow grossly polluting dirty diesels to continue to be sold in their millions even after new real-world tests commence. New data by Emissions Analytics shows that the diesel cars sold across Europe in the last few months pollute even more than before.

By the time co-decision makers strike a final compromise more than two years will have passed since the VW scandal erupted in the US. The EU has the opportunity to demonstrate it is serious about applying its rules consistently across the union and creating a level playing field on which businesses fairly compete. Business should also know that if they cheat they will be penalised, as in the US. There are more than 29 million grossly polluting diesel cars on the EU’s roads that are the dominant source of urban air pollution that kills nearly half a million people annually.

If Europe cannot respond effectively to the Dieselgate scandal citizens will rightly ask in whose interests the single market and the Union really works: citizens or business? Will the rebel forces prevail or will the Empire strike back? The forthcoming Council meetings concluding with the Competitiveness Council on 29 May, at which the Council position will be finalised, will show who the Force is with.

Blog post initially published on Euractiv.

Julia Poliscanova is clean vehicles and air quality manager at sustainable transport group Transport & Environment.

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