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8th Mar 2021

Investigation

EU capitals at fault on emissions, commissioner says

  • Bienkowska told states to concentrate on national enforcement rather than demanding a rewrite to EU rules (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

National governments should start enforcing EU rules on car emissions properly rather than complaining about them, EU industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska told transport ministers on Tuesday (7 June).

She rejected a proposal by Germany to change the EU regulation on so-called defeat devices, which are often installed in diesel cars to limit the effect of, and sometimes switch off, the emissions control system.

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  • German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt (l) with his UK counterpart Patrick McLoughlin (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

“I have not been convinced today for the need for legislative amendment,” she said in Luxembourg.

Defeat devices are banned under EU law. But the law contains an exception that such devices can be used when they are needed to protect the engine.

Carmakers have taken a very broad approach to defining the conditions in which engines need to be protected. For example, one manufacturer's defeat device kicks in when outside temperatures fall below 17C.

Critics say national authorities could challenge car manufacturers because the emissions control system is supposed to be active during "normal use".

Germany's transport ministry found in April that carmakers widely use the engine protection exemption.

It concluded that the 2007 EU rules, to which Germany and other EU states had also agreed, were too vague and proposed a change.

But Bienkowska said a change to the wording of the relevant regulation “will not solve the problems”.

While car companies “have not acted in good faith”, the Polish commissioner noted it was a lack of enforcement on a national level that had led to an environment in which carmakers believed they could “get away with it”.

The rules on emissions are agreed at an EU level, but market surveillance is in the hands of national watchdogs.

“Defeat devices are an enforcement problem,” said Bienkowska.

She then told member states that if they want to make progress on the issue, they should look at their national implementation first, instead of criticising the European rules.

“You have to first strengthen your national enforcement authority, carry out audits of your [test laboratories] and check whether your national fines are really appropriate,” she said.

The Polish official added that the commission was available for help with interpreting the legislation, and to make sure that market surveillance authorities take a common approach.

But she also noted that for the commission to do that, member states needed to share the “technical information” they gathered in their emissions investigations carried out after the Volkswagen scandal, adding that some have not yet done so.

Recent investigations by EUobserver show that member states have failed to put in place substantial enough penalties for the use of defeat devices, with some countries having very low fines.

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