EU Official Blasts ‘Delay After Delay’ in Auto Emissions Scandal

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By Stephen Gardner

The top official for the European Union’s single market strongly criticized automakers and EU countries for their handling of the diesel car emissions scandal.

EU internal market commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska said Feb. 9 she faced “denials of the facts” when she pushed automakers for information on discrepancies between the emissions performance of their cars in tests compared to emissions in daily use.

EU countries “fail to enforce the law,” and some countries “still refuse to disclose to us all technical information” relating to their national investigations into emissions cheating by automakers, Bienkowska told a meeting of a European Parliament inquiry committee set up to investigate failings in the surveillance of cars for conformity with EU air pollutant emissions limits.

EU country authorities and automakers are “still playing with time; there is delay after delay after delay,” in responding to European Commission queries on car emissions, she said. The commission is the EU’s executive arm.

Lawmakers Back Changes

Separately Feb. 9, another European Parliament committee, the internal market committee, approved in a 33–4 vote a draft EU regulation intended to make the EU compliance testing system for new car models more watertight, with more independent oversight of testing laboratories.

The regulation on the EU testing system is one part of the bloc’s response to the emissions cheating, which started when German car giant Volkswagen was found in the U.S. to be using an illegal defeat device in some diesel models to suppress nitrogen oxides emissions when cars were compliance tested. Many makes of vehicle, including those of other manufacturers, have been found to commonly exceed pollution limits in daily use compared to their emissions in tests.

Other aspects of the EU response to diesel emissions scandal include revisions to car emissions testing procedures and legal infringement proceedings against EU countries accused of failing to enforce EU law on defeat devices that are used to suppress pollutant emissions when cars are being tested. Stricter test procedures for vehicles on the EU market will be phased in starting in September.

The commission published the draft regulation to reform the testing system in January 2016. The regulation would increase spot checks on vehicles, require EU national authorities rather than test centers to collect test fees from automakers and empower the commission to step in and suspend or penalize any test center seen to be failing.

Lawmakers on the internal market committee broadly backed the draft regulation but added amendments under which EU countries would be required to draw up national market surveillance programs, and the commission would gain the power to oblige countries to carry out tests on specific makes of vehicle, or to step in and carry out tests itself.

To be finalized, the full European Parliament must vote on the internal market committee’s position on the draft regulation, and then must negotiate a compromise version with the Council of the EU, which represents the governments of EU countries.

More Infringement Proceedings Expected

Bienkowska said reform of the testing oversight system is “vital to prevent any future misconduct at national level,” but the changes could be held up by the Council of the EU, where work on the dossier is “very slow.”

Bienkowska’s spokeswoman, Lucia Caudet, said the internal market committee’s amendments to the draft regulation “seem to be going in the right direction,” and “it’s imperative to have this new legislation in place as soon as possible.”

Bienkowska added that further infringement proceedings against EU countries could be expected soon.

Last December, the commission started infringement proceedings against the Czech Republic, Greece and Lithuania for not introducing penalty systems to sanction carmakers whose vehicles breach pollutant limits, and against Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and the U.K. for not penalizing Volkswagen despite its use of illegal defeat device software.

Feb. 9 was the deadline for the countries to respond to the commission’s notice of infringement proceedings, and Bienkowska said the commission would study their responses before deciding on next steps. Ultimately, the countries could be referred to the EU Court of Justice.

Consumer Compensation

Bienkowska also repeated a point she had made on a number of occasions that Volkswagen should pay compensation to EU consumers similarly to the average compensation of around $5,000 it has paid to Volkswagen owners in the U.S.

The commission was “really pushing” Volkswagen on compensation, but the commission “has no direct enforcement powers in the area of consumer protection,” she said.

It was “unbelieveable and unacceptable how European consumers are treated in this case,” Bienkowska said. In the EU, Volkswagen has established a recall program for vehicles with defeat devices, but has declined to pay compensation.

A spokeswoman for the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 9 that it “supports the core objectives of strengthening market surveillance and improving the current system, as well as further harmonizing it,” in the EU. The association did not respond to questions on Bienkowska’s criticisms of automakers.

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch member of the European Parliament’s diesel emissions inquiry committee, said the car emissions scandal had exposed “the core dysfunctioning of Europe where member states do not comply with European rules and they openly refuse to do so.”

In a draft report issued in December, the inquiry committee faulted EU-level and EU country authorities for failing to do more to ensure compliance with EU nitrogen oxides limits and for not sanctioning carmakers. The committee will vote on its final report Feb. 28.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Gardner in Brussels at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

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