Sunday

25th Jun 2017

Interview

Dieselgate will fester, says MEP who wrote damning report

  • (Photo: European Parliament)

After a year of investigating how the car emissions scandal could have happened, the Dutch member of the European Parliament's Dieselgate inquiry committee, Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, does not think the story will end with the report he wrote.

German carmaker Volkswagen Group is still facing lawsuits, consumers and investors are still hoping to acquire some kind of compensation, and investigations into possible other carmakers' emissions cheating are still ongoing.

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  • The last meeting of the committee is held on Thursday 9 February. (Photo: Peter Teffer)

“What you want happening after a scandal is that you clean up the mess, and life goes on with the necessary improvements. I'm afraid this will fester for a long time,” Liberal MEP Gerbrandy told EUobserver in an interview in his office in Brussels.

But Gerbrandy's job is mostly done. Together with his centre-right German colleague Jens Gieseke he wrote the draft report that summarised the findings of the parliament's first inquiry committee in 10 years.

The committee began its work a year ago following the revelations that Volkswagen committed emissions fraud.

In their report the two MEPs counted no less than five examples of maladministration by member states, and three cases of maladministration by the European Commission.

Poor implementation

The findings confirmed what Gerbrandy said he had been flagging for a while.

“Member states do not always think they are part of the European Union,” said Gerbrandy.

“It was a shock to see how poorly EU rules are being implemented.”

National governments did not check for cheating software banned by EU legislation, or lay down dissuasive penalties for emissions fraud.

Gerbrandy said the Dieselgate affair was a "confirmation" to him that more European oversight was needed over environmental legislation.

More EU oversight

Next week, the European Parliament's Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection will vote on a file that aims to prevent future similar scandals.

It concerns the European Commission's legislative proposal to increase EU oversight of how passenger vehicles are approved by national authorities. It would give the commission the power to fine car companies when member states fail to, and to double-check emissions tests carried out at national level.

The rapporteur of the file had proposed to water down the proposal to centralise powers at EU level, but Gerbrandy told this website he was confident the committee would instead support the original plan.

“I have full confidence on parliament's part, but I fear what member states will want to make of it,” he said.

National governments will have to negotiate with MEPs to reach a compromise deal on whether to introduce more EU oversight, and if so, how it will work.

Gerbrandy expected anti-EU sentiments to lead national governments to refuse centralising power at EU level, something which he said annoyed him.

“As a pragmatist, I cannot stand it if you don't want to improve something for ideological reasons. Why not? Come on! You can see that it doesn't work like this,” said Gerbrandy.

Separate EU agency?

In the current system, car manufacturers are free to choose where they apply for car certification – and as a consequence which member state will be policing them. Many companies have chosen countries where they contribute heavily to the national economy.

But Gerbrandy is not yet sure whether that greater EU oversight should be done by an EU agency separate from the EU commission, as his colleagues on the left side of the political spectrum have argued.

“The idea of an agency sounds nice, but it is also a vote of no confidence in the European Commission, an institution we need as an independent guardian of EU law. It's not feasible to transfer everything to agencies,” said Gerbrandy.

“And don't forget that the board of an agency is made up of member states, so the question is how much more independent and better that is.”

Dieselgate in the age of Trump

Gerbrandy praised the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an example to Europe of an independent overseer, acting “tough but fair”.

It is unclear if the EPA will remain that way under Donald Trump.

“I hope that they will be able to continue to be neutral, and not distinguish between foreign and American car manufacturers. Listening to Trump, that's not entirely clear.”

With an unreformed EU and a hobbled EPA, which body in the world could tackle the next emissions scandal?

“Maybe the Chinese, who are working on much stricter air-quality standards,” said Gerbrandy.

But in Europe, the car manufacturers who were designing their cars to pass the test, while polluting much more on the road, have effectively been “rewarded”.

'Shameless' car lobby

From the dozens hearings that Gerbrandy attended, the exchange that he will remember most involved Paul Greening of the car industry lobby, the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA).

“At one point, we were talking about normal use of the car, and after pressing him to answer my question, he said he was convinced that the legislator had also meant in the spirit of the law that cars only need to follow the norms in the laboratory,” said Gerbrandy.

“I thought that was so shocking, that you would dare to say that in a public hearing. I'll never forget that.”

He said he simply did not believe the testimony.

“Nobody thinks that the idea was that cars would be super clean in the laboratory, and then emit 20 times more on the road. I thought that was ethically so incredibly reprehensible. Really shameless.”

Smaller team, please

Looking back, Gerbrandy said he thought the exercise was very interesting, and he's open to another stint in an inquiry committee – if the group was smaller.

The Dieselgate committee consisted of 45 members, far too many in his view. Gerbrandy said the team should consist of "10 to 12" people, because that would enhance the team spirit.

Nevertheless, the Liberal MEP said he was also positively surprised with how the centre-right and right-wing members of the committee exercised their duties.

Most MEPs from the European People's Party (EPP) and European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) had voted against setting up the committee.

“It is no secret that the Christian Democrats did not want this committee at all, and in the beginning you saw that political interests played a factor in meetings with group coordinators," he said.

“But as the investigation progressed, that became less. Of course, centre-right MEPs kept asking if diesel had a future, but that was one of the few things. The EPP and ECR began to ask more critical questions, and became annoyed with some questions that were just not answered.”

Bienkowska became more cooperative

Gerbrandy saw a similar development in the responsible EU commissioner, Elzbieta Bienkowska (industry and internal market).

“In the beginning I thought she was very defensive, and almost hostile. During the investigation that changed into a cooperative spirit,” he said.

Still, the European Commission should do more than the infringement procedures it began at the end of 2016.

“Why does the commission still accept that member states do not withdraw type approvals when it is evident those car types do not conform the rules,” he asked.

He'll be able to ask Bienkowska when she appears at one of the last meetings of his committee, on Thursday 9 February.

During that meeting, MEPs will also discuss any amendments to add to Gerbrandy's and Gieseke's report, which will then be put to a vote in the Dieselgate committee at the end of February.

Magazine

Dieselgate: The year that went up in smoke

The outrage at Volkswagen's industrial-scale emissions cheating has not subsided, but the EU and Germany have done little to punish the automaker or provide compensation to its customers.

Dieselgate: MEPs want to give EU more testing powers

EU Commission should have power to veto national car testing programmes, MEPs in lead committee agreed. Meanwhile EU commissioner Bienkowska says member states have learned little from emissions crisis.

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