30th Nov 2023


Inside the secret EU talks on the future of car emissions

  • Centre-left Maltese MEP Miriam Dalli (l) negotiated on the new EU rules for CO2 emissions of cars and vans. A majority of MEPs had wanted a 40 percent reduction target - much higher than the 30 percent proposed by EU commissioner Miguel Arias Canete (r) (Photo: European Parliament)

Even when EU politicians clash bitterly about draft legislation in talks behind closed doors, they do so in formal language and in a civilised plenary format.

The three-way negotiations between the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, and the European Commission, known as trilogues, may be held outside the public eye – but there is still plenty room for diplomatic courtesy.

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  • Cars should emit 37.5 percent less CO2 in 2030, compared with 2021 (Photo: European Parliament)

"We highly appreciate the contribution given by 'blah blah blah'," would be a typical beginning of a contribution, jokes Finnish liberal MEP Nils Torvalds.

"Partly, it's tradition. Partly, it's a way of concealing that you are actually playing a tough game, but you are playing a tough game according to the diplomatic niceties," Torvalds told EUobserver in an interview.

"You push a knife between the fifth and the sixth rib and you say: 'oh, my dear friend!'," he added.

The Finnish politician was closely involved in the trilogue talks about new CO2 reduction targets for cars and vans – representing his political Alde family as a so-called shadow rapporteur.

The outcome of those talks, a complicated compromise between the different positions, is being put to a vote in Strasbourg on Wednesday (27 March).

It will require auto-manufacturers to have reduced their cars' CO2 emissions in 2030 by 37.5 percent, compared with 2021. Their vans' emissions should be reduced by 31 percent in the same timescale.

The bill also foresees complex incentive schemes to promote the production of zero-emission vehicles.

Intense lobbying

How did the final result come about?

It was a hard-fought compromise and one of the most intensely-lobbied files of 2018.

Miriam Dalli, the Maltese centre-left MEP who negotiated as rapporteur with the other two EU institutions on parliament's behalf, held at least 130 bilateral meetings with lobbyists from all kinds of sectors - not only the powerful car lobby, but also 'Big Oil' and other fuel companies, parts suppliers, and environmental lobbyists.

They not only knock on the door of Dalli's office though, she said.

"They reach out to other members, so other MEPs then put pressure on you," said Dalli. "Luckily enough, we were prepared for it. We knew it was coming."

However, much lobbying work is done far in advance, with lobbyists then letting representatives of national governments do the dirty work during the trilogue period, according to MEP Torvalds.

"I think the lobbyists are intelligent enough to understand that if they are trying to be very heavy-handed in a very touchy moment of the trilogue, then that can backfire heavily," he said.

Austrian reluctance?

The draft regulation was published by the commission in November 2017.

The parliament and council - representing national governments - reached their respective positions on the draft in early October 2018, followed quickly by the first trilogue meeting on 10 October.

The council's position is always defended by the country which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, which during those six months was Austria.

According to several MEPs, Austria was very reluctant to give up anything – sticking to the agreement reached between member states and constantly saying no.

"Ultimately in a negotiation you have two co-legislators. They both need to move," Dalli said.

During the second and third trilogue, the Austrian presidency did not want to discuss the political hot potatoes, she added, which meant that not much progress was made towards a conclusion.

"The second one and third one were in my view a lost opportunity," she said.

The Austrian EU ambassador was not available for interview, but a spokeswoman for the Austrian permanent representation in Brussels explained that "every presidency is bound by a mandate", i.e. the position agreed by member states in the council.

She stressed that progress was made "in each trilogue".

Then, on 10 December, the fourth trilogue meeting was scheduled for 9PM, in Strasbourg. The idea was that a deal would be reached at this meeting.

The commission had proposed that by 2030, the CO2 emissions of cars and vans have to be reduced by 30 percent compared to 2021. The council proposed to raise that figure for cars to 35 percent, but the parliament wanted 40 percent.

But Dalli was not getting anywhere.

"I was trying to approach council with different scenarios and trying to reach compromises, asking for movement on the percentages, and the only reply I was getting was no," she said.

"You have your position, we have our position – you can't end up in a position where everyone says no," said Dalli.

She thought that the Austrian presidency's strategy was to try to make parliament concede, under the pressure that it was the last scheduled trilogue – Christmas was around the corner.

And after New Year's, it would be Romania at the helm of the EU presidency – and pressing issues like Brexit and the May EU elections would be a distraction.

This argument had some fertile ground among centre-right and conservative MEPs, who wanted to conclude a deal that night.

Did Dalli pull the plug?

But according to Dalli and several other MEPs, she decided to pull out of the talks.

"We can't move if you don't move," said Dalli.

"The council didn't show any room for manoeuvre," said Eleonora Evi, MEP for the Italian Five Star Movement.

The shadow rapporteurs from the European People's Party (EPP) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) – whose positions were closer to the commission's proposal (i,e. with less strict targets) – had wanted to continue negotiating.

"Miriam Dalli played a big role - her decision was to stop negotiation there, and not give everything away," said Evi.

Julia Poliscanova, an environmental lobbyist at the Brussels-based Transport & Environment network, said she agreed with Dalli's decision "to walk away".

Poliscanova, who followed the negotiations closely - but from the outside - said the Austrians at one point offered a 37 percent reduction target, but that the MEPs had to agree to adopt the council's position on all other elements.

"It seemed that Austrians really did not understand the rules of genuine negotiation," she said.

Poliscanova summarised the proposal as giving MEPs two percentage points in exchange for "shutting up".

"I would also walk out if I was Miriam. Those two percent do not balance everything that is lost," she said.

But ECR member John Procter, a British MEP, remembered it differently.

"This idea that the rapporteur held her ground and stopped the deal happening - just wasn't the case. That wasn't what happened at all," he said.

"There were certain key crucial member states who had a string of red lines, and they would not move from those red lines. … It wasn't the rapporteur who said 'well, we'll pull out', it was the council who said very clearly: we cannot move further."

Those key member states were car-industry-minded Germany and the four central and eastern European states known as the Visegrad Four (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia).

These countries constituted a so-called blocking minority.

There is a strong correlation between the countries that made up the blocking minority and whether that country depends on a significant share of Europe's car industry jobs. Map produced by the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet), for an EUobserver article originally published in November 2018.

When liberal MEP Torvalds heard the Austrian presidency argue MEPs would not get a better deal under the Romanian presidency, "what you could hear was a German voice in the background: we will keep this blocking minority".

This led to frustration among the EU countries that wanted more ambitious targets.

Already ahead of the third trilogue, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Sweden called on the Austrians to move in the direction of the parliament, in a confidential paper dated 28 November 2018, and seen by this website.

But according to sources in the parliament as well as a diplomatic source, these more ambitious countries were not kept in the loop by Austria.

"Some of the member states were coming to me directly, complaining about a lack of transparency on how things were moving," said MEP Dalli.

"We got the feeling that the Austrians all along the way were just taking the line of the Germans," she added.

The Austrian spokeswoman saw it differently.

"During the ensuing negotiation process with the European parliament the Austrian presidency has kept all member states informed and engaged through the regular procedures but also during the negotiations when necessary," she said.

A week after the fourth trilogue broke down, a fifth was scheduled and a deal was reached.

It is difficult to establish what exactly changed between those two meetings that allowed an agreement.

"Negotiations don't go like: I give you this, you give me this. It's a package at the end," said Dalli.

Cars and vans treated differently

For example, while the commission had proposed a 30 percent reduction target for both cars and vans - and parliament proposed 40 percent - the council wanted to have different targets: 30 percent for vans and 35 percent for cars.

"We knew that there was a number of member states that were adamant about having this differentiation. If this differentiation wasn't in place, it would have jeopardised the whole package," said Dalli.

The final reduction percentage for cars, 37.5 percent, was not based on a specific scientific rationale, but simply was the exact middle point where the two sides could meet each other.

EU diplomats meeting in the council agreed to the outcome in January.

"This is proof that the final text was a balanced compromise amongst all differing points of view," said the Austrian spokeswoman.

"All parties involved worked together to do their utmost to achieve this important aim for the environment," she added.

And how did the other institutions convince EU climate action commissioner Miguel Arias Canete, who had consistently defended a substantially lower reduction target of 30 percent, this website asked at a press conference in December 2018?

"The decision to go for higher targets belongs to the co-legislators. They don't have to convince me. They have to reach an agreement," said Canete.

"I will never be an obstacle for an agreement which is more ambitious," he added.

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