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29th Mar 2020

Political deal done on EU oversight of car emissions

  • The European Commission will have the legal obligation to check if national authorities do a satisfactory job testing emissions (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The European Commission gained the right to check cars for emissions cheating on Thursday (7 December), more than two years after the beginning of the 'Dieselgate' scandal.

Just after noon on Thursday, the EU executive reached a deal on a reform of the EU's car type approval system with the European Parliament and the Council of the EU – representing national governments.

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"We know that some car manufacturers were cheating and many others were exploiting loopholes," EU commissioner for industry Elzbieta Bienkowska said in a press release.

"To put an end to this, we are overhauling the whole system."

Bienkowska said that the "key elements" of what the commission proposed in January 2016 had been upheld, "including real EU oversight and enforcement powers".

Following the revelation in September 2015 that German car company Volkswagen Group had equipped some 8.5 million diesel cars with a software code that cheated the official emissions test, the commission proposed more EU oversight in a system that is still very much in the hands of the member states' authorities.

'May' vs 'shall'

The commission proposed legislation which said baldly that it "shall" carry out tests and inspections.

Member states, through the council, resisted this for months, saying that the bill should only say that the commission "may" do such tests. In the end, they agreed to the first, prescriptive version.

The commission will be able to fine companies up to €30,000 per vehicle if cheating software is detected, but the exact circumstances are not yet clear.

The council also got some of what it wanted.

Before Dieselgate broke, there was no real market surveillance of cars in Europe to speak of.

The new bill will explicitly lay out requirements for national market surveillance authorities.

MEPs had wanted to require that authorities in a specific country double-check 20 percent of all cars they approved.

The council however wanted checks for one in every 50,000 new vehicles, which in practice would be much less than what MEPs suggested.

Member states also wanted only one in every 200,000 new vehicles tested on their emissions.

The final deal amounts to checks for one in every 40,000 new vehicles, but the final share of cars facing extra testing on emissions remained the same: 0.0005 percent.

Brussels-based consumer umbrella organisation Beuc said in a press release that the requirements were less than they and MEPs wanted, but "nevertheless a step forward compared to the current situation".

Estonian economy minister Kadri Simon said it was "a balanced deal which delivers the necessary reforms".

"This new framework will help restore the credibility of the car sector. It will set up a transparent system with proper supervision, improve coordination at different levels and harmonise the application of EU rules," he said in a press release.

British MEP Daniel Dalton, a Conservative, called the deal the "final step in fixing a broken system which let down millions of people around Europe".

"Make no mistake, in future any manufacturers trying to cheat the system will be found out and properly punished," Dalton said.

However, environmental lobby group Transport & Environment said that new legislation alone is not enough.

"If the European Commission doesn't keep a tight grip on national car regulators and check their work robustly and regularly, dieselgate will happen again," it said.

The deal comes a day after former Volkswagen top official Oliver Schmidt was sentenced to seven years in jail and a $400,000 fine in the United States.

Schmidt had plead guilty to defrauding the US government.

US authorities have also come to a multibillion dollar settlement with Volkswagen which, by contrast, refused to pay any compensation for its cheating in the EU.

The EU countries responsible for approving the cars with illegal software however, have never fined Volkswagen Group (VW) or its subsidiaries.

The commission has started a legal procedure against these countries, including Germany, but since it started one year ago it has only consisted of letters being sent back and forth.

Last month, VW received a €450,000 fine – the highest amount possible – for misleading customers, from the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets.

The deal still needs approval by the national governments and the plenary of the EU parliament.

A press release published on Thursday said that the plenary vote could be scheduled as late as April 2018.

Interview

Dieselgate disappointed car-loving commissioner

Industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska often finds herself on opposite sides to the car industry, referring to diesel engines as the "technology of the past".

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