Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

Investigation

Dieselgate MEPs unhappy with 'hopeless' commission

  • Green MEP Eickhout (top right) during a plenary meeting last February. 'Don't say there wasn't proof, because you didn't look for it' (Photo: Greens/EFA)

Just like other public officials, members of the European Parliament's inquiry committee into the dieselgate scandal sometimes forget their microphones are still on.

On Tuesday (21 June), centre-right MEP Krisjanis Karins could be heard calling the four witnesses representing the European Commission “completely incompetent”, while liberal MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy was later heard muttering “hopeless, hopeless”.

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It was the first time that representatives of the European Commission, the EU's executive body, appeared in front of the investigative committee as official witnesses.

But it did not take Superman-like hearing abilities to establish that the MEPs of the committee were deeply frustrated with the Commission.

MEPs kept hitting a brick wall, despite being armed with increasing evidence that people within the commission may have had suspicions that cheating software was the reason why toxic emissions were much higher on the road than in the laboratory.

In November 2014, Karl Falkenberg, director-general of the commission's environment department, wrote to his counterpart in the industry department to ask for an investigation into the discrepancy.

However, the EU commission has always maintained it had “no indication” that carmakers used cheating software, called defeat devices in the EU legislation that banned them.

The representatives of the commission present on Tuesday's hearing repeated that line.

“The risk of defeat devices was known, but the commission was not aware of any actual instances of fraud,”said Gwenole Cozigou, director of industrial policy and economics analysis at the commission's industry directorate.

At best, that was an evasive answer. Because MEPs wanted to know why the commission did not investigate the matter in the first place.

“Everytime you say there was no concrete proof, it's because you did not put forward an investigation that was asked for,” said Green MEP Bas Eickhout.

“Don't say there wasn't proof, because you didn't look for it.”

Awkward silences

A recurring scene during the three-hour hearing, was the four witnesses consulting while the awkward silence between question and answer was growing, sometimes for as long as 40 seconds.

Eickhout called the responses “disappointing” and called on the commission not to give “false information”.

But it was not only members from the left side of the parliament's committee that were critical.

Centre-right MEP Karins was visibly annoyed with the long time the witnesses needed to answer simple questions.

“What I'm looking for is a non-scripted answer,” he asked at one point.

Another annoyance the MEPs expressed during the hearing, was that they didn't receive all the documents, including emails during the relevant period they were investigating.

Blaming member states? Only confidentially

The commission representatives were also asked repeatedly which member states blocked the implementation of a real driving emissions test, but they refused to say.

They refused also to acknowledge that some member states were blocking the process, but rather said these countries “were just not agreeing with the proposal”.

Beyond “countries from the south and east of the continent”, no names were given in public.

However, they did agree to provide that information to MEPs in a confidential manner.

The commission and parliament are currently working out the details of how MEPs can access confidential documents, with the commission proposing that only MEPs and two staff members from the committee can see them in a secure reading room. They would not be allowed to take notes.

For their part, the commission witnesses refuted the notion that they were uncooperative.

“We're doing our best to give honest replies. We should not be accused of not being honest in front of this committee,” said Cozigou.

This website was not able to confirm what MEPs were saying off microphone during that statement.

Analysis

EU governments duck responsibility on dieselgate

If VW had cheated on emissions in the Netherlands, its fine would have been just €19,500. “I didn't think about the fines before,” the Dutch transport minister says.

Car makers caught out on dodgy EU claim

Carmakers claim they don't know what "normal" driving conditions are in terms of EU law. But their own lobby group already decided 14 years ago.

German MPs to also probe Dieselgate

Bundestag inquiry committee has more enforcement tools than its EU counterpart to ensure witnesses like former commissioner Guenther Verheugen will appear.

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