EU Council agrees to reform the system for motor vehicles but with “restricted” power for the Commission

3544th Competitiveness Council (Internal market + Industry)
Ms Elzbieta BIENKOWSKA, Member of the European Commission.
Location: Bruxelles – BELGIUM
Date: 29/05/2017
Copyright: European Union

It was last Monday when the EU ministers gathered in Brussels to draft new rules to prevent future emissions cheating from the automotive companies after the VW emissions scandal.

The Council of Ministers from 28 countries proposed rules for cutting down the national authorities’ power giving at the same time the ability to the European Commission (EC) to make sure that emission standards are respected and fine any company which is not complying with them.

However, there are loopholes in the draft text since the EC will not be able to impose fines if the national authority has already done so. Thus, it will much easier for the automotive lobby to influence a national government and get away with a small fine.

Automotive reform

The EU Council has set an approach which targets the type-approval and market surveillance of the motor vehicles. This action comes long after the EC’s recommendation on 27 January 2016 to improve the automotive system as it has been proved that it is easily bypassed. The case of VW has showed that there is room for improvement in this field where the EU’s rules have lots of imperfections.

The Minister for the Economy of Malta mentioned that this pact aims at enhancing the current technologies with a clear focus on citizens’ health. More specifically, Chris Cardona stated: “Public health, air quality and innovation are at the core of this agreement. The only way to restore and increase trust in the European automobile industry is to help to develop clean and safety technologies. Reliable control tests for cars will be established so that emission irregularities that happened in the past cannot reappear in the future”.

Proposal’s flaws

The text of the Council is still to be negotiated with the EP before becoming law. The Commission, even if gaining extra power to a certain extent regarding raising fines for irregularities of up to 30.000 euros per non-compliant vehicle, will only be able to act and impose a fine if the national authorities have not done it. Furthermore, it is not forbidden to automotive companies to fund national authorities; something that raises serious concerns about how biased the national governments would be.

Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska, responsible for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs, stated that the current system is fragile and it is under continuous attack. More in detail, Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska stated: “As we all speak in favour of the single market in this area, how can we possibly deliver that concept of the single market, if the same offence by some manufacturers is punished in 28 or 27 different ways? No week goes by without new revelations, new investigations. It will never finish if we do not have a more robust system in Europe.”

BEUC pushes for tougher measures

BEUC, the European consumer protection agency, has characterised the approach of the EU ministers as a “paper tiger” which will not prevent automotive firms from engaging to similar to VW’s emissions scandal techniques. Monique Goyens, BEUC’s director general, said on the issue: “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”.

BEUC’s stressed that the original proposal from the EC more than a year ago has been cut down preventing the EC from imposing tough controls. It is also mentioned that carmakers will keep on choosing where to conduct their emissions tests which shows that the conflicts of interest in this part still remains unsolved.

Lastly, the consumer agency cries out to the EC and EP not to accept the approach proposed by the Council and urges them to promote more effective and influential measures.

Negotiations to begin shortly

On the one hand, the fact that the EU ministers drafted a text and made some proposals on the improvement of the type-approval and market surveillance for motor vehicles is a good thing.

On the other hand though, the inadequacies of some of the rules must be carefully revised in order to build a more robust system and prevent cases like the Volkswagen one. What is more, the EU launched legal action against Italy over claims it overlooked attempts by Fiat Chrysler to cheat on diesel emission tests.

The latter shows that the problem of incorrect and potentially illegal nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions is much broader and it is imperative to put a stop by negotiating quickly and effectively on the approach provided by the Council.

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