Dieselgate: The year that went up in smoke
By Peter Teffer
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”.
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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.
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 first published in EUobserver's Europe in Review 2016 magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.