Tuesday

12th Dec 2017

Magazine

Dieselgate: The year that went up in smoke

  • Many automakers admitted that they had been using defeat devices, but they pointed to a loophole in the legislation. (Photo: European Parliament)

In 2015, the world learned of what became known as the Dieselgate scandal - an industrial-scale cheating of emissions tests by the Volkswagen Group (VW). This year, we understood more of how it happened. But in terms of fixing the damage and making sure it never happens again in Europe, 2016 has largely been wasted.

The response to the situation in the EU and the United States was vastly different. Throughout the year, Brussels-based consumer lobby group BEUC has complained that VW is treating European car owners as "second-class customers".

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • Volkswagen Group claims it did nothing illegal in Europe. (Photo: David Martinez)

In the US, the German car giant reached a €13.2 billion settlement to compensate consumers and clean up environmental damage, with potentially a further fine to pay. But in Europe, it is refusing to pay.

Attempts by the European Commission to persuade VW to compensate Europeans has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. In September, around the scandal's one-year anniversary, VW committed to an "EU-wide action plan", which contained few notable promises.

The German company said it would inform all European customers of the issue by the end of 2016, and have all the cars fixed by autumn 2017 – all the while maintaining that equipping 8.5 million cars in Europe with cheating software was actually not illegal.

VW faces little threat of punishment in Europe. Most of the affected cars were approved in Germany, so it is Germany that is in charge of handing out penalties for the use of the illegal software, known as defeat devices.

But according to hearings that took place at the European Parliament in October, Germany is not planning to impose any fines.

Both transport minister, Alexander Dobrindt, and the president of the Federal Motor Transport Agency (KBA), Ekhard Zinke, said VW's recall programme was punishment enough. "I regard it as a penalty if a manufacturer is told that they can no longer trade particular products on the market in their present form," said Zinke - as if the return of stolen money was sufficient punishment to bank robbers.

Meanwhile, other car companies have also eluded any punishment.

Following the VW scandal, authorities in the largest member states carried out investigations to check emissions on the road, as compared with those in the official laboratory test.

Many automakers subsequently admitted they had been using defeat devices, but they pointed to a loophole in the legislation. If a defeat device is required to protect the engine, it is permissible under the law.

This led Dobrindt to argue that the law is too vague and does not contain enough criteria to distinguish between lawful versus illegal use of defeat devices.

In June, EU industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska told Dobrindt and other transport ministers at a gathering in Luxembourg that they should start enforcing EU rules instead of moaning about them.

"The law is clear enough, and we all know it," she said, adding that it was up to national authorities to double-check automakers' claims that defeat devices are needed to protect the engine, instead of uncritically accepting the car industry's arguments.

Following the ministerial meeting in Luxembourg, the commission decided to prepare legal guidelines to help member states interpret the law on defeat devices, despite having said that the law itself should be enough to challenge car-makers.

One consequence of this is that no national authority will take any action before the guidelines are finished. It was expected by December 2016, but is not yet ready.

For its legal guidelines to make any sense, the commission needs detailed information from the member states about the cars they have tested. But member states have not been eager to provide this.

Reform

There also has been little progress on legislative measures to make the system of approving cars more robust. In January 2016, the commission had proposed increasing EU oversight, but the proposal has not been dealt with speedily by the two institutions - the European Parliament and the EU Council - whose consent is required.

The parliament's leading committee is expected to vote on the proposal in January 2017, several months later than initially expected. Discussions at the EU Council are also taking more time than expected.

But MEP Christofer Fjellner of the centre-right EPP group told EUobserver to be patient. "It is correct that we needed more time," said the Swedish MEP. But he added that the timeline is "by no means extreme, especially considering that there were so many developments this year".

Many of those developments have been discussed in the European Parliament's Dieselgate inquiry committee, which aimed to shed light on how the scandal came about.

Witnesses testifying in the committee painted a clear picture of what went wrong - a lack of enforcement by member states, no sense of responsibility, a lot of finger-pointing, and too much trust in the car industry.

In 2017, we will see if those lessons will be applied to improve the system.

At the eleventh hour of the year, the EU commission did take legal action against several member states that have not done enough to deter or punish carmakers for cheating on emissions tests.

On 8 December, the commission sent so-called letters of formal notice to seven member states, which have two months to reply.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.

Investigation

One year on: Dieselgate keeps getting bigger

One year ago, it emerged that VW had cheated on emission tests in what came to be called the Dieselgate affair. EUobserver looked at how it happened and what the EU did to stop it.

Magazine

Europe in Review 2016

EUobserver wishes you a new Europe! This year's Europe in Review edition looks back at all the events of 2016 that will define the coming year.

Magazine

Ceci n'est pas une EU army

EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini got tired of repeating the phrase "this is not … an EU army", but 2016 saw France and Germany leap forward on military integration.

Magazine

Europe in Review 2016

EUobserver wishes you a new Europe! This year's Europe in Review edition looks back at all the events of 2016 that will define the coming year.

News in Brief

  1. EU bank delays gas pipeline decision
  2. Hungary's leftwing parties join Jobbik in anti-Orban protest
  3. Barnier: EU will not accept UK backtracking on Brexit deal
  4. Puigdemont to return to Catalonia if elected
  5. Commission approves EasyJet partial takeover of Air Berlin
  6. EU medical command centre due next year
  7. Auditors: EU 'green' farm payments fail ecology criteria
  8. Austria gas explosion creates Italian energy 'emergency'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  2. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  3. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  5. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  6. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  7. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap
  8. European Friends of ArmeniaEU-Armenia Relations in the CEPA Era: What's Next?
  9. Mission of China to the EU16+1 Cooperation Injects New Vigour Into China-EU Ties
  10. EPSUEU Blacklist of Tax Havens Is a Sham
  11. EU2017EERole of Culture in Building Cohesive Societies in Europe
  12. ILGA EuropeCongratulations to Austria - Court Overturns Barriers to Equal Marriage

Latest News

  1. Last chance for Poland to return property to its rightful owners
  2. Commission attacks Tusk on 'anti-European' migrant plan
  3. Volkswagen tells EU: we will fail on our recall promise
  4. EU will not start Brexit future talks before March
  5. Bitcoin risky but 'limited phenomenon', says EU
  6. Panama Papers - start of sensible revolution in EU tax affairs?
  7. Lebanon crisis overshadows EU aid for Syrian refugees
  8. New Polish PM brings same old government

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Centre Maurits CoppietersCelebrating Diversity, Citizenship and the European Project With Fundació Josep Irla
  2. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceUnderstanding the Social Consequences of Obesity
  3. Union for the MediterraneanMediterranean Countries Commit to Strengthening Women's Role in Region
  4. Bio-Based IndustriesRegistration for BBI JU Stakeholder Forum about to close. Last chance to register!
  5. European Heart NetworkThe Time Is Ripe for Simplified Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling
  6. Counter BalanceNew EU External Investment Plan Risks Sidelining Development Objectives
  7. EU2017EEEAS Calls for Eastern Partnership Countries to Enter EU Market Through Estonia
  8. Dialogue PlatformThe Turkey I No Longer Know
  9. World Vision7 Million Children at Risk in the DRC: Donor Meeting to Focus on Saving More Lives
  10. EPSU-Eurelectric-IndustriAllElectricity European Social Partners Stand up for Just Energy Transition
  11. European Friends of ArmeniaSignature of CEPA Marks a Fresh Start for EU-Armenia Relations
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Energy Ministers Pledge to Work More Closely at Nordic and EU Level

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Friends of ArmeniaPresident Sargsyan Joined EuFoA Honorary Council Inaugural Meeting
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU Leaders Should Press Azerbaijan President to End the Detention of Critics
  3. CECEKey Stakeholders to Jointly Tackle the Skills Issue in the Construction Sector
  4. European Friends of ArmeniaLaunch of Honorary Council on the Occasion of the Eastern Partnership Summit and CEPA
  5. EPSUStudy Finds TUNED and Employers in Central Governments Most Representative
  6. Mission of China to the EUAmbassador Zhang Ming Received by Tusk; Bright Future for EU-China Relations
  7. EU2017EEEstonia, With the ECHAlliance, Introduces the Digital Health Society Declaration
  8. European Jewish CongressEJC to French President Macron: We Oppose All Contact With Far-Right & Far-Left
  9. ACCASmall and Medium Sized Practices Must 'Offer the Whole Package'
  10. Mission of China to the EUNew era for China brings new opportunities to all
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic countries prioritise fossil fuel subsidy reform
  12. Counter BalanceNew Report: Juncker Plan Backs Billions in Fossil Fuels and Carbon-Heavy Infrastructure