Thursday

29th Jun 2017

Analysis

Verheugen went off-script in VW cheat testimony

  • 'This was not something anyone suspected', Verheugen said about the Volkswagen scandal (Photo: European Parliament)

The move surprised several of the members of the European Parliament's inquiry committee into the Dieselgate scandal.

On Tuesday (30 August), during his long-awaited hearing, former EU commissioner Guenther Verheugen announced that he would switch from German to English, because he would read a statement prepared by the current administration.

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  • Verheugen failed to explain why stricter requirements introduced in truck legislation, were not copied into car legislation, said MEP Gerben-Jan Gebrandy (r) (Photo: European Parliament)

The centre-left German noted it was the first time in his career that he had had to “read something that other people have decided for me”.

“I will not distance myself from it, but I haven't written it, I want to make that clear,” the 72-year old former commissioner for industrial policy said.

After the hearing, the committee's chairwoman, Kathleen Van Brempt, told EUobserver the peculiar episode showed the current EU commission “is trying very hard to control the narrative”.

In that, the commission did not quite succeed.

After he read the statement in English, Verheugen switched back to German, and eventually went off-script.

Since the Volkswagen scandal broke, almost a year ago, the EU commission has always maintained it was aware of the possibility of emissions cheating, but not that it had actually taken place.

Verheugen repeated the second part, but effectively denied the first part.

'Not possible'

“We have to be frank with each other. This was not something anyone suspected,” he said about the use of cheating software, known as defeat devices.

“I didn't even think it was possible, from a moral point of view. Also, I didn't think it was possible from a technical point of view.”

The statement merits closer attention.

Let's begin with the claim that the man who for eight years was responsible for the EU's industrial policy didn't know that the use of defeat devices was technically possible.

In a reform of emissions legislation for passenger vehicles that concluded in 2007, for which Verheugen was responsible, a ban on defeat devices was maintained.

Why would you continue to ban an activity which you think is impossible? By analogy, there is no EU ban on time travel or voodoo.

So what did he mean?

Mind-reading

“It's a little hard for me to read former commissioner Verheugen's mind and try and interpret his words,” said commission spokeswoman Lucia Caudet on Wednesday (31 August) at the daily press conference in Brussels.

“I think he was trying to express the shock and surprise that we have all had here, just as you have, regarding the revelations at Volkswagen,” she noted, referring to the revelations that VW had used defeat devices.

Perhaps that shock could have been prevented.

Already at the end of the 1990s, a US scandal involving cheating truck manufacturers showed that defeat devices were real.

In 2002, the EU commission told partners at a United Nations forum on vehicle legislation that the scandal had convinced the commission to change the law on truck emissions.

“It was clear that if one manufacturer used a defeat device then all manufacturers would use similar strategies to compete on fuel consumption,” it said in a paper.

Trucks and motorcycles, but not cars

The year before, the commission had introduced stricter rules on defeat devices in the relevant truck legislation, and in 2002, it did the same for motorcycles. The new rules included an obligation to report the use of defeat devices during the vehicle certification process.

But when the emissions legislation for passenger cars was updated in 2007, a reporting obligation was left out.

“Verheugen could not explain why,” said Dutch liberal MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, who will be one of the co-authors of the committee's report.

His fellow Dutchman Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP, said he believed Verheugen did not know.

“But that tells you something else: that this issue was not a priority to him,” Eickhout said.

'Naivety'

There is also something significant about Verheugen's inability to imagine that carmakers would be “morally” able to cheat.

A third Dutch parliamentarian, centre-right member Wim van de Camp, said he was a “little shocked” about Verheugen's “naivety”.

“He has proposed legislation that assumes an absolute trust in the car industry and the member states,” Van de Camp said.

“He could not imagine anyone cheating. Well, a commissioner for industry, considering the experiences we have had in the US, should have been able to see this.”

European Commandments

Commission spokeswoman Caudet explained the quote on morality by referring to the Ten Commandments.

“The Bible also says ‘thou shalt not kill', and that does not mean that you think people are going around killing each other.”

Perhaps not. But the Bible analogy may not hold.

In the story about the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus, the biblical character Moses also tells people: “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

It is quite clear that fear of national authorities was not great enough to deter carmakers from emissions sins.

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.

VW 'seems' to have broken EU laws

EU commission trying to help consumers seek compensation from Volkswagen, whose emissions cheating appears to have breached two EU laws.

Dieselgate MEPs let ex-commissioners off hook

The European Parliament's Dieselgate inquiry committee will not pursue Erkki Liikanen and Margot Wallstrom to testify, accepting that their mandates were too long ago.

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