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13th Jul 2020

Investigation

Commission delays legal action on car emissions

  • Infringement procedures are one of the few coercive tools the commission has to compel member states to do something. (Photo: Paul Sableman)

The European Commission failed on Thursday (17 November) to fulfil industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska's promise, that legal action against member states for failing to make car manufacturers follow EU rules on emissions was imminent.

Bienkowska had told members of the European Parliament during a hearing in September that she would “act as soon as possible”.

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  • Bienkowska said nine weeks ago: 'I can assure you that we won't wait anymore in the next few weeks with our infringement procedures'

“In cases where rules were really broken or bent by the car manufacturers, it is obligatory for the member states to impose a fine on them,” she told MEPs.

“If they do not do it, I will use my power to use the infringement procedures and I will definitely not shy away from doing this,” said Bienkowska.

But the package of infringement procedures, published on Thursday, did not contain any action in the field of car emissions.

“There isn't really that much that I can say,” EU commission spokeswoman Lucia Caudet told EUobserver at the daily press conference. “If it isn't in there, it isn't in there.”

The Polish commissioner gave MEPs several commitments on timing during the hearing.

“You will definitely see some infringement procedures next month,” she said during the 12 September hearing, over nine weeks ago.

"Soon you will see the first infringement procedures."

“I can assure you that we won't wait anymore in the next few weeks with our infringement procedures,” she later added.

But the commission clearly waited.

“There is a number of clarifications we have asked from member states,” said spokeswoman Caudet on Thursday.

“That dialogue is ongoing and there is really not much more that I can say about content or timing of next steps.”

Since the Volkswagen scandal broke out in September 2015, the commission has stepped up efforts to find out how member states implemented a ban on emissions cheating software, and whether they introduced dissuasive penalties.

The commission also wants more information about the methodology of on-road tests national authorities carried out.

These tests showed cars of various types and brands emitting dangerous nitrogen oxides far above the EU limit. National authorities accepted the explanations of most carmakers that the higher emissions are needed to protect the engine, but the commission wants to double-check the data.

But, if the decision to take legal action against member states, or not, depends on whether member states send certain information, is there not an interest in the member states to withhold that information, or to stall?

“I can only say that for now, we are asking questions, we are receiving answers and for potential next steps you will have to be a little bit patient,” said Caudet.

The commission's chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, added: “Even if we are not told, we have other means to find out.”

“Where there is a will, there is a way”, added Caudet.

Infringement procedures are one of the few coercive tools the commission has to compel national governments to do something.

Such a procedure follows several steps of escalation, potentially ending with the EU Court of Justice imposing fines on the infringing country.

Bienkowska 'should be brave'

Seb Dance, a centre-left member of the European Parliament, called on the commission to "be brave enough to bring infringement proceedings against countries that fail to enforce the law".

"Commissioner Bienkowska has been extremely keen to lay the blame for Dieselgate solely at the door of the member states, yet the commissioner knows as well as I do that national governments cannot be trusted to take action against their own national car industries, even where malpractice has clearly taken place," Dance told EUobserver in a written statement.

His colleague from Luxembourg, Green MEP Claude Turmes, noted that Bienkowska "promised" MEPs that she would launch infringement procedures against EU countries unwilling to cooperate.

"More than two months later, the commission has not done anything. This raises the question if all commissioners and notably president [Jean-Claude] Juncker are backing this decision," said Turmes.

Emissions cheats face tiny fines in some EU states

Fines for car firms that cheat tests in the EU range from €7 million to €1,000. EU commission itself unsure to what extent states complied with rules on "dissuasive" penalties.

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.

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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