Bieńkowska: ‘What we want from Volkswagen is a different approach’

EU Internal Market Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska

Elzbieta Bienkowska [European Commission]

The car sector is keeping EU Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska busy. In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, the Polish official spoke frankly about carmaker responsibility following the Dieselgate scandal, how to deal with Uber and how Brussels-Warsaw relations might not improve.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska is EU Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs. Prior to her mandate in the Commission, she was deputy prime minister of Poland and minister of infrastructure and development.

Bieńkowska spoke with EURACTIV reporter Jorge Valero.

It has been two years since the Dieselgate scandal broke. In the US, Volkswagen paid out more than $20 billion in compensation but in Europe the company offered only quick fixes to the cars, even though most of the vehicles were sold here. Are Europeans second-class consumers?

Of course we are not. In the Commission we are still fighting, or discussing, whatever you want to call it, with Volkswagen mainly.

We understand that the legal basis is different and they cannot propose the same compensation here compared to the US. But what we want from Volkswagen is a different approach to what we have seen, unfortunately, over the past two years.

I would not tell you what kind of compensation I would like to see, but I would like to see a little bit of empathy toward European consumers. Their primary market is Europe, so they should really show to European consumers how important they are.

What do you mean when you ask for more empathy?

If you pay more money for a car because it was supposed to be cleaner, but it is not, maybe the right response is not just to send a letter informing you the way to replace the device.

I am not saying that everybody should get roses or chocolates. But we were waiting for 18 months for some proposals from their side. We had quite a lot of meetings, including with Volkswagen.

Taking into account that they will not pay as in the US, what kind of comparable compensation, maybe not money-wise but in other terms, they could propose to European consumers? There were some signals, like the prolongation of some guarantees. But after two years, we haven’t seen almost anything concrete on the table.

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How do we stop another Dieselgate happening?

We need a strong European car industry. But first we need to get to the bottom of what happened, and that is what we are doing. Second we need a new system of type-approval for cars. The existing one is not working. We still don’t have the new one, but we are on a good track and hopefully soon, after trialogues with the Parliament and Council, we will have it.

For me, the process was a bit too slow. I hope the Estonian presidency will be able to conclude the process, with or without EU agency, because it is not decided yet.

An EU agency to monitor car tests and the approval system was not part of your original proposal…

Regarding the agency, I am not saying I am supporting it now, but I am not as closed-minded to this idea as I was last year. The reason is that there is quite a different approach in member states to how they dealt with the [Dieselgate] crisis.

Of course, some of them, with a strong industry, want to divert the attention to other parts of the picture. At this stage, I don’t know if this is the end [of the scandal] or we will find something else. And still we need to make a decision on what to do with the cars currently circulating on our roads. We need the member states for it.

I am very much against banning diesel cars in the city centres. But if we don’t have a decision from the member states on how they want to check whether the cars are clean or not, and their emissions, certainly there will be a situation when a city would want to ban diesel cars. And this would be detrimental to consumers when millions of these cars are on our roads.

What is the future of the diesel sector?

Member states keep repeating that the car industry secures so many jobs that we have to preserve them. Of course, we have to do it. But if all of us, car manufacturers, member states, also myself, continue to be attached to this technology of the past, which is diesel, we will lose in the race of electric cars and other clean technologies.

I am not saying we have to quit diesel technology overnight. But definitely we have to keep in mind that, in 15 or 20 years, diesel cars will not be produced. We have to do something to prepare for what is coming, because it is coming much faster than we expected a couple of years ago.

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London’s transport authority has revoked the operating licence for ride-hailing app Uber over the American company’s attitude to customer safety and “lack of corporate responsibility”.

You are also responsible for the collaborative economy. What do you think of the ban imposed on Uber in London? Is it the right answer?

The sharing economy will not disappear. Certainly the solution is not to ban it. Of course, these companies must be honest and pay their taxes where the service takes place. The question is whether regulation is needed or not.

In some countries, mostly Nordic countries, the sharing economy model functions very well. These new firms are paying their taxes directly. In light of fast-paced changes, the world would be very different already when the legislation is adopted in three of four years time.

For that reason, our approach a few months ago was to produce some guidelines. But maybe it doesn’t work like this, maybe we need regulation.

So you will come up with new legislation for the sharing economy?

No, we don’t know yet. But I don’t have positive feelings about regulating the sharing economy, although some of these startups would like to see that. I don’t know what will be the result. I would prefer member states sharing good practices. But generally speaking, banning a new business model is not the solution.

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With regards to Poland, do you think that the situation will improve in the medium term or is it very unlikely?

Maybe I am too pessimistic, but I don’t think the situation between Poland and the European Commission will improve. Maybe I am wrong. I would like to be wrong. Most of the rhetoric used by the Polish government, also when it refers to the Commission, aims at its domestic electorate.

So what is going to happen?

We have elections in two years, I don’t know what will happen. The Polish economy is doing very well, thanks to measures taken by the previous government. Growth is around 4.7%. If the economy is going well, and people get more money and subsidies for everything, I don’t see much goodwill from the Polish side for improving the rule of law.