Sunday

4th Dec 2016

Investigation

Left MEPs thwarting Dieselgate probe, say right MEPs

  • Members of the centre-left family: Matthias Groote (l), Bernd Lange (c) and EU parliament president Martin Schulz (Photo: European Parliament)

Two members of the centre-left group in the European Parliament are refusing to appear in the parliament's inquiry committee into the emissions scandal, MEPs from centre-right groups have said.

But the committee's chairwoman told EUobserver she is “still optimistic” the committee will hear from them. Bernd Lange told this website on Friday he has not refused to appear, but that he wanted some clarification "to know what I should and can contribute".

The inquiry committee wants to question German MEPs Bernd Lange and Matthias Groote, but according to a centre-right member of that committee, Latvian Krisjanis Karins, they told the committee they did not want to show up.

“It is very deplorable and I invite them to reconsider not being cooperative,” said Karins in a written press statement on Thursday (27 October).

“The absence of MEP Lange and MEP Groote would undermine the possibility to shed light on the legislative process leading up to the so-called Dieselgate,” said Karins.

Karins' colleague Hans-Olaf Henkel, who sits with the third largest group, the mildly eurosceptic ECR group, blamed the committee's chairwoman Kathleen Van Brempt, who is a member of the same political group as Lange and Groote, the S&D.

“Mrs Van Brempt just decided to cancel the meeting without clarifying why the former two rapporteurs not accepted the invitation or suggesting a second attempt to invite them again,” said Henkel in a press release.

Van Brempt said Karins and Henkel may have “misunderstood” a message she had sent.

“The originally scheduled meeting cannot go ahead,” said Van Brempt, but that didn't mean the invitations have been declined.

She said that Lange wanted some clarifications before he would make a decision, and that Groote, who is leaving the EU parliament this week, had agreed to answer questions in writing.

Van Brempt added she was somewhat taken aback by the centre-right MEPs' move to issue press releases.

“But that is political life,” she said.

Rapporteurs

Both MEPs acted as rapporteurs during the legislative process, which meant they wrote parliament's amendments to the EU commission proposal and negotiated with member states.

Lange introduced the concept of cheating software – or defeat devices – in EU legislation in 1997, and proposed to ban it.

The final legislation also included an exception, which carmakers have since used to defend practices that have led to much higher emissions on the road than in the required laboratory test.

In July, Lange told EUobserver in an interview legislators at the time could not have foreseen the exception would be used as a loophole.

“As we discussed this, there was no discussion about exceptions. It was for me totally clear that defeat devices shouldn’t be allowed,” he said.

Leaving for regional politics

Groote was rapporteur for an update of the emissions legislation in 2007. The parliament and member states decided not to change anything substantial about the way defeat devices were defined.

This website has requested an interview with Groote multiple times since the end of August. Initially his office left the option open, but earlier this month said Groote would not have any time for an interview because he was leaving the parliament. He had his last meetings this week.

Earlier this year, Groote won a seat in local elections for the German Leer district.

He has not responded to written questions from EUobserver about his role as rapporteur, and his office said on Thursday Groote he was “not available”.

The reported refusals to show up are peculiar, because the inquiry committee had already decided that MEPs would be invited to a so-called exchange of views instead of a hearing.

The exchange of views format is much less confrontational than the hearings.

However, it could be that fear of political naming-and-shaming still played a role.

Political theatre

Despite Karins' statement on Thursday that “the inquiry is not a witch hunt, but an inquiry into past shortcomings and lessons for the future”, it has been the scene of political theatre between the two largest groups, EPP and S&D.

The two groups, who have a majority of seats together, often operate as a sort of grand coalition, but are also rivals when it suits them. The forthcoming decision who will succeed the parliament's president, centre-left German Martin Schulz, no doubt plays a role in many of the groups' public statements, as do the upcoming 2017 German federal elections.

At a hearing of German transport minister Alexander Dobrindt on 20 October, the tone of Karins' questions was much less confrontational and accusatory than with the subsequent hearing that day of Olaf Lies, Dobrindt's counterpart at the Lower Saxony state level.

Dobrindt hails from Karins' political family, while Lies is a social-democrat.

In what must have been political gold to the centre-right groups, who originally voted against setting up the Dieselgate committee, two previous witnesses who initially refused to show up, were also from the centre-left family.

German social-democrat Guenther Verheugen, a former EU commissioner, showed up after increased political pressure. French socialist environment minister Segolene Royal is still negotiating with the committee over a date.

This article was updated on Thursday 27 October at 15:40 to include comments from Kathleen Van Brempt, and on Friday to include comments from Bernd Lange

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