After months of wrangling, Germany’s government finally relented, approving a draft law that aims to crack down on emissions cheating by tightening new vehicle approval rules for carmakers. But critics say the bill continues to bear the hallmarks of an influential car lobby.
Under the new rules, the power of national authorities would be reduced and emissions-testing authority partially shifted to the European level. The move would prevent a repeat of the Volkswagen emissions scandal, lawmakers hope.
But the draft, passed by the European Council on Monday, still has to receive the green light by the European Commission and the European Parliament, before it can become law. Both bodies have called for even stricter rules in the past, pitting carmakers against an increasingly hostile regulatory environment.
The new rules would allow centralized European regulators to conduct their own emissions tests, even after national authorities have approved a particular car model. In case of test discrepancies, the commission could slap carmakers with fines of up to €30,000, or $33,500, per vehicle.
The high fines were what many member states, such as Germany, regarded as the biggest obstacle for approval. The penalties could reach enormous amounts if, as in the case of VW’s diesel cheating scandal, some 8.5 million cars are involved.
“It is high time we establish a credible and waterproof system of type approval rules.”
But Europe’s executive doesn’t trust member state authorities to keep tabs on local carmakers, after it took US authorities to discover the irregularities at Germany’s largest carmaker in the summer of 2015. Europe’s Industry Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska doesn’t want to take any chances. “It is high time we establish a credible and watertight system of type approval rules,” she said. And high fines act as a deterrent.
The German auto industry feigned understanding. It was supporting all reform efforts “strengthening the integrity and the transparency of the system,” the German Association of the Automotive Industry, VDA, said in a statement, adding that red tape still had to remain manageable for both companies and officials.
But consumer groups decried the agreement as a “paper tiger” that would do little to prevent another diesel scandal.
“Clearly under pressure from Germany, they have agreed on a package of half-baked measures that risk turning the entire reform into a paper tiger,” Monique Goyens, the director general of European consumer protection agency BEUC, said in a statement.
While the German government agreed to the general idea of introducing penalties, lawmakers of Europe’s largest economy were quick to urge for the introduction of an independent arbitration board that would “ensure the speedy settlement of disputes.”
The move is meant to curtail Brussels’ power and prevent EU authorities from having the final say in a dispute between two national authorities over whether a particular automaker violated emissions limits.
At the moment, EU officials can only attempt to mediate such disagreements, as is currently the case between German Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt and Italian-controlled car producer Fiat-Chrysler. Mr. Dobrindt and his ministry accuse the automaker and the Italian government of willfully ignoring cheat devises in Fiat’s diesel cars, an allegation the two parties vehemently reject. The European Commission has now launched proceedings into the case.
Critics, such as Julia Poliscanova of the European NGO Transport & Environment group, say that Germany’s proposed new arbitration rules would allow governments to elude independent experts and open the door to dubious collusion among member states.
Consumer groups, such as the BEUC, also say the draft has been “watered down” to prevent the commission from acting after a member state has already fined a carmaker, irrespective of the amount of that penalty.
And the new measures are not only intended to prevent emissions cheating. They should also lower damaging greenhouse gas emissions. Transport & Environment estimates that some 35 million vehicles on European roads are emitting more than three times the permitted nitrogen oxide levels.
Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt’s Berlin office. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org