Sunday

16th Jun 2019

Interview

Dieselgate disappointed car-loving commissioner

  • 'I will never say: please get rid of your diesel car' (Photo: EU2016 SK)

Elzbieta Bienkowska loves cars, and loves driving.

Growing up in Poland, her father was a car engineer, so she was "brought up among cars".

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For the past two years - as EU commissioner for the internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs - she has had to deal with the Dieselgate emissions scandal "almost on a daily basis".

Bienkowska now often finds herself on opposite sides to the car industry.

The diesel engine has received two years of negative press because European car manufacturers produced millions of diesel cars that were designed in such a way to pass the official emissions test, but be non-compliant with EU pollution limits when driving on the road.

Europe's car lobbyists, however, are still firmly holding onto diesel technology, which German automakers, in particular, have built years of expertise in.

"We have to save the jobs, this is the major argument from their side," said Bienkowska in an interview with EUobserver.

"Okay, I am very much for jobs, I'm very much for the industry, and as I said in the European Parliament, I think the idea and the main goal is the same. We want to preserve the automotive industry in Europe."

However, Bienkowska thinks that it is time to start letting diesel go, calling it "technology of the past".

"Diesel engines will not disappear from one day to another," she said. "[But] all the changes are going much faster than we predicted two years ago."

She said that Europe must prepare for the zero-emission car, and that while diesel may be "with us for ten, fifteen years", the European car industry needs to be "prepared to be a leader of car manufacturing in twenty years time".

Response to Dieselgate was 'not proper'

Commissioner Bienkowska of September 2017 is rather different to the one from September 2015, when US authorities announced they had found that German carmaker Volkswagen had committed emissions fraud.

She initially thought that the scandal which, "of course ... was very serious cheating", could be resolved quickly.

However, after Volkswagen, other carmakers were also accused of having cheated with emissions tests.

"It is not only Volkswagen, there are some suspicions about different car manufacturers. As I feel it personally, the response is not proper," said Bienkowska.

"We are still, after two years, not at the point when we can say that everything is open, everything is transparent, and that we know really what happened."

The Polish commissioner is also disappointed in member states' responses to Dieselgate.

"Of course, a few member states took some action. We had the emissions summit in Germany and Austria. We had some member states that negotiated voluntary measures with the industry. A few member states opened criminal investigations - but it's not massive."

Over the summer, Germany and Austria held so-called diesel summits, in which they sat down with the car industry to strike deals over how to reduce dangerous nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel cars that are currently on the market.

The summits were criticised by environmental groups and politicians as not sufficient, and Bienkowska too said the results "were quite limited".

German elections

In Germany, Dieselgate has become a topic in the campaign for the upcoming federal elections.

Germany's centre-right chancellor, Angela Merkel, who hopes to acquire a new mandate, has traditionally defended diesel technology and German automakers, and now finds herself in a tough spot.

Speaking four days ahead of the German vote on Sunday (24 September), Bienkowska was careful not to comment on the internal affairs of the EU's largest member state.

But she did express hope that after the election is over, there will be more room "to discuss it without such emotions".

"We have the same goal. We need a strong German, Italian, French car industry."

European agency

The emissions scandal also laid bare gaps in the European car certification scheme.

To be sold on the EU market, carmakers have to pass tests to acquire a so-called type approval for their cars.

An approval from any of the EU's 28 member states is valid across the bloc.

"We recognised two years ago, after our examination, that the type approval institutions do not work equally well. In some member states they are better, in some they are worse," said Bienkowska.

In January 2016, the commission proposed a reform of the system, with an increased role for the EU commission.

But even though the legislative process for that proposal has not even been wrapped up yet, Bienkowska is already thinking it will not be enough.

Last week, in the European Parliament, she announced her position on setting up an EU agency to deal with car approvals is changing.

Over the past two years, several MEPs have proposed such an agency.

"I was very much against it, at the very beginning," said Bienkowska. "Maybe in this case I was wrong."

After the two years she "experienced with both member states and with the industry," she had started to think that it might be right to create an EU body.

The commissioner added that "maybe in this case it is very much needed. I don't know", saying that she is not ready for a yes or no answer on the issue, but that she is "much more open to discussing it than two years ago."

Should diesel owners sell their car?

Last Monday (18 September), Bienkowska held a press conference with commission vice-president Jyrki Katainen.

Her Finnish colleague revealed that he owned a diesel car, which he bought a year before the scandal broke out. Rhetorically, he asked journalists for advice on whether he should sell it, knowing that others may drive the car much more often than he would.

Bienkowska did not want to give Katainen advice, she told this website.

"I will never say: please get rid of your diesel car."

She added that the process of replacing diesel cars "will not happen this year, next year, or in five years."

"But maybe in fifteen years time" this will happen, "because this is the technology of the past," she said.

The Polish commissioner herself owns a car that runs on petrol, but her previous vehicle had a diesel engine. She switched from diesel to petrol before the scandal, on advice from her husband.

"I love driving." she said, adding that "My next one will definitely be hybrid, if not electric. We'll see."

EU cautious with German diesel plan

The European Commission welcomed the German carmakers' pledge to update software in diesel cars, but is waiting for details on how emissions will be reduced.

Ministers water down post-Dieselgate reform

The EU commission wanted the power to hand out fines to cheating automakers, but the council limited the instances in which the commission can do so.

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