Daily Briefing

Americans, not Germans, are cleaning up Dieselgate

Audi Handschellen
Source: Handelsblatt Global

For the first time, an acting, rather than former, boss of the VW group is behind bars. Prosecutors in Munich locked up Rupert Stadler, who has been running Audi, apparently because they suspect him of having suborned witnesses or tampered with evidence in the ongoing Dieselgate scandal.

Let’s take stock for a moment. How, and more importantly where, was the Dieselgate scandal uncovered, and who is primarily cleaning it up? The crackdown began in America in 2015, when prosecutors forced VW to admit that it had cheated on emissions tests of 11 million diesel-powered cars. American courts subsequently slammed VW with about $25 billion (€21.5 billion) in penalties and fines. The Americans have also indicted eight VW managers, including its former CEO, and actually put two in the clink. The Americans even sent a watchdog to the Wolfsburg headquarters to ensure that the mother ship behaves itself.

And the Germans? Their knee-jerk reaction at first was to hope that this would blow over. The car industry, you see, is just too important for employment and the German economy. But nothing blew over, everything kept stinking more. So German officials and prosecutors also got busy. They’ve recently fined VW €1 billion (what was the amount in the US again?). And they’ve arrested three executives, including Mr. Stadler.

So it is overwhelmingly Americans, not Germans, who are cleaning up the biggest scandal ever to be revealed in Germany’s flagship industry, and the worst pollution cover-up in a country that thinks of itself as “green”. (It isn’t all that green, by the way: Germany’s environment minister just announced that the country will completely miss all its climate goals.)

I remember pondering all this when Dieselgate first combusted. At that time, Europe and America (this was the innocent pre-Trumpian era) also had the fantastic idea of negotiating a free-trade area across the Atlantic. But then German left-wing lobbies, using fake news, rallied the German public against such a deal. One of their ever-shifting arguments was that the US surely had lower environmental and consumer standards than Europe, and would foist yucky filth on rosy-lunged Germans.

I had recently moved to Germany from California, one of the world’s strictest environmental regulators. According to German fantasies, I should have been choking on chlorinated chicken there. So I was wondering what those German lefties were smoking. And then, as I watched Dieselgate unfold, I remembered what I’d been warned: Germans just don’t do the irony thing.

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Nor does Donald Trump, of course. America’s president yet again inserted himself into Germany’s political crisis (see yesterday’s Briefing) with a tweet: “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”

If you’ve been reading Handelsblatt Global, you know that “the people” are not “turning against their leadership.” Rather, a perennial Bavarian gadfly named Horst Seehofer is scheming to bring down a chancellor who still has approval ratings Donald Trump can only dream about. And nobody here has “violently changed” anybody’s culture. The humdinger, however, was Trump’s lie that “crime in Germany is way up.” It is in fact, as we recently reported, way down.

That brings us to this week’s LongGermanWordYouCantSay. It came up in the aforesaid spat between Seehofer and Merkel. Seehofer has now given Merkel another two weeks to find “a European solution” to the migrant controversy, after which he intends to turn people back at the border, in defiance of Merkel’s policy. This would, Merkel hinted, touch on her … Richtlinienkompetenz. We googled it. It means something like: the chancellor’s prerogative to set policy. In this context, it means: Horst, you’ll be fired.

Which reminded us of Mark Twain’s classic essay, “The Awful German Language”. As he observed there, in German “there are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome.”

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