Sunday

30th Apr 2017

Investigation

Dieselgate: MEPs want to give EU more testing powers

  • Employee of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) preparing a car to best tested. JRC currently tests with a scientific aim, but the idea is that it will also have an enforcement role (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Members of the European Parliament voted on Thursday (9 February) to increase oversight at EU level of how cars are tested and approved, in what lead MEP Daniel Dalton called a “strong, robust response” to the Dieselgate emissions scandal.

Elsewhere in the parliament, members of an inquiry committee were struck by comments made by industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, who said that in her view neither the car industry nor many national governments had learned anything from the scandal.

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  • Bienkowska says member states have not changed their "attitude" despite Dieselgate (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

The parliament's internal market and consumer protection (Imco) committee adopted Dalton's draft report with 33 votes in favour, and four against, but not before they had heavily altered it.

The committee had to vote on hundreds of amendments in an exercise that lasted more than 90 minutes.

MEPs decided to rally behind a proposal from the European Commission from January 2016 and voted to give the EU executive more powers than it had proposed.

For example, they said that national market surveillance authorities should report on a regular basis to the commission with plans on how they will check cars that are already on the road.

“We have empowered the European Commission to do that oversight,” Dalton told journalists after the vote.

“They now have control over the national plans, they have to approve the national plans and check that the national bodies are doing those plans. If the commission sees any problems anywhere, they are now empowered to go in and do it themselves.”

MEPs also introduced a new clause that would require that 20 percent of all car types approved in a country would be the subject of post-certification checks on the road.

€30,000 fine per car

The Imco deputies supported the commission's proposal that it can fine carmakers up to €30,000 per car that is found to contain illegal cheating software, if a member state is unwilling to levy penalties, as Germany currently is on Volkswagen's fraud.

There was no majority in the committee to call for the creation of a separate EU agency for road transport.

Dalton, a British Conservative MEP, whose initial draft report was heavily criticised, said his ideas had been “misunderstood” and denied that he had tried to weaken the commission's attempt to centralise power.

“It was trying to make the commission report more coherent,” he said of his first draft.

Following an upcoming vote in the plenary, Dalton will have to defend the parliament's position in discussions with representatives of the Council, where national governments meet. The final legislation will be a compromise between the council and parliament.

The question is whether member states will accept an increased role for the EU.

Commissioner Bienkowska did not paint a sunny picture on the issue, when she spoke to members of the inquiry committee into emissions measurements in the automotive sector, or Emis committee.

“When we talk with many industry, I think that you feel the same, you and I still get some old denials,” she said, in a meeting held simultaneously as the vote in Brussels.

“I generally see no shift of attitude in the industry, but also unfortunately in the member states' authorities in this matter. Some member states still refuse to disclose to us all technical information," she added.

Since December, Germany and the UK have been at the receiving end of infringement procedures because they refused to give data to the commission on emissions tests they did.

Lot of talk, but what change?

Liberal MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, from the Netherlands, said Bienkowska's remarks about the lack of attitude change was “one of the most astonishing statements” he had heard in the last year, during which he was one of the leading MEPs in the inquiry committee.

“It means that both industry and member states still do not understand how huge and damaging the whole Dieselgate scandal was, has been, and will be in the future,” he said.

Other MEPs also expressed concern about the reported lack of change in the industry in the almost 1.5 years since Volkswagen admitted to having cheated to emissions tests, a period during which it emerged that many other companies also used defeat devices.

Dutch MEP of the centre-right European People's Party, Wim van de Camp, said it was a “characteristic” of the EU that there is “a lot of talk” but little change.

“How are our recommendations going to be applied?”, asked far left German MEP Cornelia Ernst.

Illegal cars 'all over the place'

Green MEP Bas Eickhout, also Dutch, pointed out that according to criteria in a commission legal paper published two weeks ago, many carmakers must have used illegal cheating software in their diesel cars.

He referred to an assessment that his own group made of official reports that came out of several member states, with the new legal guidance in mind.

French authorities tested diesel cars with only a slight modification to the official laboratory test, an exercise which the commission's guidance document labelled a category 1 test.

“Under category 1, emissions exceeding the recommended thresholds are a strong indication for a possible presence of prohibited defeat devices,” the commission's document said, adding that it was “certain” that then “a prohibited defeat device is present”.

Eickhout noted that many carmakers currently not under official investigation in France, like Alfa Romeo, Nissan, and Opel, were exceeding the emissions limits by between 200 percent and 450 percent.

“There are prohibited defeat devices all over the place,” said Eickhout, later trying to get Bienkowska to publicly agree with him, and to commit to new infringement procedures against member states that did not follow-up on findings of such high emissions.

“You said yourself they [the cars] failed to comply with European law. They are still on the streets. If you fail to comply, they should be out of the streets,” he said.

“I thought I was clear about it”, noted Bienkowska, adding that she was “quite sure that we will again come forward with infringements in the next months to come. Definitely, yes.”

Next steps

The final report of the inquiry committee will be adopted after an internal vote on 28 February, followed by a plenary vote.

Meanwhile, the car type approval file needs a common position from national governments in the Council before it can move ahead in the legislative pipeline.

The first meeting of the responsible ministers in Brussels will be on 20 February, but Pablo Micallef, spokesman of the Maltese presidency, said ministers will merely be informed of progress, rather than starting negotiations at this time.

He noted that he could not promise the file will be closed during the Maltese presidency, by 30 June 2017, but he said that the presidency is dedicating "a lot of energy" to achieving a compromise.

Dieselgate report 'cannot be ignored'

“Dieselgate could have been avoided if member states and the Commission had followed European law. That is quite something,” rapporteur said.

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