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'Many questions remain' on role of EU in Dieselgate

  • Citizens visiting the JRC's emissions lab in Ispra. MEPs had their own tour of the facilities (Photo: European Commission)

Members of the European Parliament's inquiry committee into the Dieselgate scandal still have many questions about the role of the European Commission, the committee's chairwoman Kathleen Van Brempt told this website on Wednesday (20 July).

She spoke to EUobserver after returning from Ispra in Italy, where a delegation of MEPs visited the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the commission's in-house science body. The two-day visit marked the last official activity of the committee before the summer break.

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  • Van Brempt: 'a number of questions remain' (Photo: European Parliament)

“Everyone needs holidays,” Van Brempt said, after more than four months of evidence-gathering into whether the EU and member states should have done more to try and prevent Volkswagen Group (VW) from cheating on emissions tests, or if they could have known what was going on. The inquiry probe has a 12-month mandate.

The visit to Italy, which included a tour of the JRC's emissions laboratory, did not provide a lot of new evidence, Van Brempt said, although she also noted that was not her expectation of the trip.

“It was very useful to see the emissions laboratory in real life,” the centre-left Belgian MEP said, adding that she acquired “a lot of technical knowledge”.

Questions

The committee's chairwoman said that “a number of questions remain”.

“Our biggest frustration is that we do not have an answer yet to the question why the JRC did not dig deeper when they found in 2010-2011 that emissions discrepancies [between lab tests and real driving conditions] were huge,” said Van Brempt.

According to the Belgian politician, the representatives of JRC repeated what its policy director told MEPs at a hearing in Brussels in April: that JRC scientists did not have the mandate to investigate the use of cheating software.

Several MEPs expressed concern that the JRC had not been more curious. But in Ispra, the same line of reasoning was maintained.

The meeting was not open to press.

US lawsuit

It took place while attorneys general in the United States announced a new lawsuit, including new allegations about the scale of misconduct within VW.

The attorney general - a kind of public prosecutor - of the state of New York said Tuesday that the company had “a culture of deeply rooted corporate arrogance, combined with a conscious disregard for the rule of law or the protection of public health and the environment”.

The lawsuit contained evidence from internal VW documents not seen before.

It showed that senior executives of Europe's largest car manufacturer had tried to cover up the scandal.

Following on-road emissions tests that showed enormous discrepancies with results acquired in the laboratory, US authorities confronted the company with the test results.

On 23 May 2014, Frank Tuch, director of VW Group Quality Management wrote to then CEO Martin Winterkorn: “A thorough explanation for [high] emissions cannot be given to the authorities.”

Some months later, on 19 August 2014, Oliver Schmidt, director of VW's environmental and engineering office, wrote to Mark Gillies, communications officer at Volkswagen Group of America.

“[Audi's] V6 has exactly the same issues [as VW diesels], but not public yet. They have not been caught,” Schmidt wrote.

In January this year, Schmidt had appeared as a witness in the UK House of Commons. Asked about the engineers who installed the cheating software, he said he had “no knowledge about who did it or why they did it”.

“I would love to get the answer myself,” Schmidt added.

The American attorneys general said they expected VW to pay “substantial fines”, independently of the €13 billion settlement it previously agreed in the US.

VW still profitable

VW has not yet responded to the US lawsuit, but it did announce on Wednesday that it has put an additional €2.2 billion aside to deal with the scandal's fallout.

Despite this, the German industrial powerhouse also said it had profits in the first half of 2016 that were beyond expectations.

Its profits were 22 percent lower than in the same period last year, but the company still made a profit of €5.3 billion.

Combined with the company's reluctance to offer any compensation to European consumers, the recent developments may spur Europe's national authorities to try and indict Volkswagen for criminal conduct.

Consumer confidence

The EU's industry commissioner, Elzbieta Bienkowska, does not have the power to do so, and relies on national authorities.

“Almost 10 months into the shocking revelations, it is high time that we get to the bottom of what has happened at Volkswagen and elsewhere,” Bienkowska told EUobserver in a written statement.

“Consumer confidence in the car industry and the credibility of national authorities depend on our collective ability to fully establish the facts, ensure consumers are treated fairly and demonstrate zero tolerance against fraud and circumvention of rules,” the commissioner said.

Bienkowska is also due to appear in front of the parliament's inquiry committee later this year.

The next hearing will be on 30 August, when her predecessor from 2004 to 2010, German Guenter Verheugen, will appear.

Dieselgate shows weakness of EU federalism-lite

EU states are hesitant to transfer power to Brussels, but the case of how car certification works, or doesn't work, in practice gives few arguments to supporters of the status quo.

ECB in ‘bail-out’ of scandal-tainted VW

The ECB has started to “bail out” Germany’s Volkswagen Group by buying its corporate bonds, but other EU-linked banks continue to shun the scandal-tainted firm.

Investigation

Porsche told EU not to publish diesel emission result

The EU Commission has kept results of an emissions test of a Porsche diesel vehicle secret for months, at the request of the German car company - which was fined €535m for its role in the Dieselgate scandal.

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