23rd Oct 2016


The EU's 'never-informed' car industry commissioner

  • 'I was never informed or given any evidence about the use of defeat devices', said Tajani (Photo: European Parliament)

Antonio Tajani painted a gloomy picture of the effectiveness of the European Commission and its institutional memory.

If everything he said in his testimony given to the European Parliament's Dieselgate inquiry committee is true, then the EU's executive branch needs to think hard how it can improve continuity of work whenever a new administration takes place, and whether its internal communication needs a health check.

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  • Potocnik: Power struggles between commission departments 'is part of normal life' (Photo: European Parliament)

The Italian former EU commissioner for industry (2010-2014) was questioned by MEPs on Monday (5 September). He took pains to say he had no idea that Volkswagen or other carmakers were using cheating software, so-called defeat devices, to pass emission tests.

“I was never informed or given any evidence about the use of defeat devices,” said Tajani.

But Tajani was informed about great discrepancies that existed between emissions on the road and those in the labs. Why had the possibility of defeat devices as a cause for those discrepancies never been investigated?

After all, there was already a case in the United States of emissions cheating by trucks in the late 1990s, which caused the EU to adopt stricter rules for trucks.

“That was 10 years before I stepped in. As far as I'm concerned I was never informed,” said Tajani.

Seb Dance, a British MEP from the centre-left S&D group, noted that not only was there the US case with trucks, but also that European NGOs and the commission's own science body, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), had filed reports.

“Are all documents shredded at the end of each commission?”, said Dance.

But Tajani repeated what would become his mantra in the hearing.

“Nobody ever made any mention of defeat devices, not even in EP debates,” he said.

The before-my-time argument would return several times in the hearing, even when it made little sense.

Dutch Liberal MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy wanted to know why the commission never followed up on the member states' failure to put in place substantial penalties for the use of defeat devices.

They had been banned by 2007 and EU countries had agreed to set sanctions by 2009. But all member states missed the deadline of informing the commission about their sanctions.

“Let's get this straight,” said Tajani. “I was appointed in 2010, so I wasn't responsible for 2007 and 2009 … When I became industry commissioner, I was not informed of this problem.”

A strange thing to say, since as commissioner, Tajani was responsible for making sure EU countries were implementing EU industry legislation, regardless of when it had originally entered into force.

Tajani's civil servants did send member states a letter to ask them about their defeat device sanctions in February 2013, to which only 18 of then 27 member states replied.

But nothing happened until Tajani's term ended in October 2014, and even then it took the Volkswagen scandal before the commission began again with asking EU countries about their penalties.

Tajani did not remember

Tajani noted that member states were responsible for market surveillance, but said he “did not remember” why a JRC report on real-world emissions presented to member states contained only anonymised data. This had made it difficult for the national authorities to follow up.

Tajani deflected even simple questions, for instance, how he reacted when he found out about the Volkswagen scandal.

“No one actually considered that this was possible, even the Americans didn't believe it. I didn't think of it either,” said Tajani.

The hearing was somewhat curious, since Tajani is now an MEP for the centre-right EPP group, the largest political family in the EU parliament.

He is a potential contender for the parliament's presidency, which may be why he appeared to stick to repeating scripted answers more often than his former colleague, Janez Potocnik.

'Stupid' VW

The Slovenian, who was environment commissioner alongside Tajani, gave a more outspoken statement about learning the behaviour of Volkswagen Group (VW).

“I could hardly believe that a company such as VW could be so irresponsible and fundamentally stupid to do something like this,” he told MEPs.

Potocnik, unlike Tajani, also expressed self-criticism, and said the commission “could, and we should do better”.

“When something is so clearly breaching the implementation agreements written in EU law for such a long time we should be more active to ensure that it would be addressed more effectively,” said Potocnik.

Potocnik confirmed a report by EUobserver that there was a power struggle taking place between the directorate-general environment, and that of industry.

“I think we have to simply admit that this is part of normal life. There are services which have more one interest, and there are services which have more another interest,” he said.

At the end of the hearing, Potocnik also agreed with remarks made by Green Luxembourgish MEP Claude Turmes, who questioned the “fundamental conflict” that the commissioner for industry is responsible for air pollution by cars, and not the commissioner for environment.

“I think you are absolutely right, but the distribution of responsibilities is not in the hands of neither Tajani or me,” said Potocnik.


One year on: Dieselgate keeps getting bigger

One year ago, it emerged that VW had cheated on emission tests in what came to be called the Dieselgate affair. EUobserver looked at how it happened and what the EU did to stop it.


Dieselgate: Looking under the hood

EUobserver will closely follow the hearings and research done by the EU parliament's inquiry committee, as well as investigate aspects of the diesel emissions scandal not covered by the committee's mandate.

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