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16th Nov 2018

Commission ducks questions on VW scandal

  • Volkswagen expects tough times ahead (Photo: Ralph .)

The European Union's industry commissioner, Elzbieta Bienkowska, was fiercely criticised Tuesday (6 October) by members of the European Parliament for what some said was her “relaxed” response to the Volkswagen emissions scandal, which has affected 8 million diesel cars in the EU.

In a three-hour plenary debate in Strasbourg, Bienkowska received many questions, but answered few.

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The Polish centre-right politician did call the German car manufacturer's cheating on emissions tests “fraud”, and promised the commission would make sure it could not happen again.

She said the commission had no knowledge about the Volkswagen scandal, despite a publication by its own Joint Research Centre (JRC), which warned of the possible use of the cheating mechanisms known as defeat devices.

“The European Commission has not received any information before [the] official information of [US environmental agency] EPA. And not any piece of information was received by us, neither from EPA nor from any member state”, she said.

Reffering to the JRC publication, Bienkowska said it only indicated “that defeat devices could be one of the reasons of [the] big difference between emissions in the laboratory and on the road. Nothing more and only this.”

She rejected the request from several MEPs for an EU-wide investigation into emissions compliance.

“The commission does not have the power to carry out [its] own investigation in the automotive sector”, she said.

“We rely on the authorities of the member states. These institutions are professional. Let's not jeopardse what we have built together so far. A widespread feeling of mutual suspicion is not helping coherent and effective European action.”

Several member states, including France and Germany, have started investigations. Bienkowska told MEPs she had sent a letter to those countries that have not done so yet to “encourage” them to also start a probe.

But many MEPs said they did not share Bienkowska's confidence in national authorities.

Questions, questions

Bienkowska spoke twice, but answered few of the questions the MEPs asked, even though many of them she could have seen coming:

“How is it possible that the authorities did not discover these illegal devices over such a long period of time?”.

“How is it possible that these cars passed the tests?”.

“Why was this discovered in the US before it was in the EU?”.

“What about American and Asian cars?".

“What would happen if Volkswagen goes bankrupt?”.

This last question was also on the minds of several central and eastern European MEPs, because Volkswagen is an important employer in their countries. According to a study by an Austrian bank, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia would be hardest hit.

The company itself expects tough times to come, its new CEO told 20,000 employees in a quarterly gathering in Wolfsburg, where it is based, on Tuesday.

“The commercial and financial consequences are not yet foreseeable … One thing is certain: The burden will be big. Potentially very big”, said Volkswagen boss Matthias Mueller.

“We must prepare for significant penalties.”

Legal action is already underway. The US county Harris has demanded $100 million in damages.

In a letter to German MPs dated 2 October, Volkswagen acknowledged that 8 million diesel cars in the European Union were equipped with the illegal defeat devices, German paper Handelsblatt reported Tuesday.

It said Volkswagen would recall the cars and “obvisouly cover the costs”.

Sense of urgency

In Strasbourg, several MEPs from the centre-left and left part of the parliament said Bienkowska was missing a “sense of urgency”.

“'We're on top of it, sleep well parliament, don't be afraid.' That's how I summarise your speech”, said Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout.

At the end of the three-hour drilling, Bienkowska had to be reminded by Dutch Liberal MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy that she had not committed to send parliament the answers to their questions in writing.

The commissioner apologised and said “of course” the MEPs will receive “a written answer to all ... questions”.

Parliament will vote on a resolution about the scandal at a plenary session later this month.

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