Seven countries have allegedly broken EU law for refusing to sanction Volkswagen after the company used illegal software to manipulate its vehicles’ emissions tests.
The European Commission opened infringement cases against Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Luxembourg, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Greece today (8 December), arguing that they did not apply national car emissions law to impose penalties on companies that misbehave or do enough to stop Volkswagen from breaking the rules in the first place.
Volkswagen received approval for its car models to be put on the market from car type authorities in Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and the United Kingdom. Under EU law, a country is responsible for punishing manufacturers if its national authorities approve cars to be sold anywhere in the 28-country bloc.
Lithuania, Greece and the Czech Republic received warnings from the Commission for never updating their national laws to include penalties, another requirement under EU emissions rules.
The executive sent member countries a request for information about how they investigated car manufacturers’ use of illegal defeat device software. Germany and the UK conducted their own inquiries into Volkswagen’s use of the software, but refused to disclose all the results to the executive. The Commission argued that Germany and the UK’s refusal to share more details on the investigations is an additional breach of EU law.
A spokesman for the German transport ministry defended the country’s response to the Volkswagen scandal. “Germany is the only European country that took immediate measures specifically to prevent illegal defeat devices” after a national investigation, the spokesman said.
A spokesperson for the UK department for transport slammed the Commission for opening the case.
“We are surprised by this extraordinary step by the Commission as we have had legislation in place since 2009 to tackle this issue and made this clear to them earlier this year. The UK will be responding in the strongest terms,” the spokesperson said.
The seven EU countries have two months to respond to the Commission, and could be hauled before the European Court of Justice if they don’t react.
A Commission spokeswoman said the EU executive is in contact with authorities in countries that haven’t been charged with breaking the law over other concerns about their investigations into car manufacturers’ use of software to cheat in emissions tests.
The European Commission proposed an overhaul of EU car type approval law earlier this year that would give the executive more teeth to test car models and sanction law-breaking manufacturers itself. Practices vary between national authorities and some have been accused of protecting manufacturers based in their countries. The bill is still awaiting approval from the European Parliament and member states.
EU Internal Market Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska has expressed frustration with member states’ slow response to the emissions scandal that exploded in September 2015, when the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency caught Volkswagen using cheating software to mask how much nitrogen oxide (NOx) its cars emit. Nitrogen oxide is an air pollutant that is dangerous to human health.
“National authorities across the EU must ensure that car manufacturers actually comply with the law,” Bienkowska said.
A spokeswoman denied that the executive could have opened the infringement cases earlier, arguing that the executive does not have the power to investigate manufacturers independently of national authorities. The Commission waited for member states to respond to its requests for information “in the spirit of good cooperation”.
Environmental campaigners and consumer groups approved of the Commission’s muscle flexing.
Greg Archer, director of clean vehicles at NGO Transport & Environment, called for a new EU agency to be set up to oversee what cars are approved to be sold. Bienkowska has resisted calls to create a new EU agency and instead proposed giving the Commission and its in-house researchers more powers to monitor cars that are already on sale in Europe.
National authorities “must stop protecting their friends and clients in the automotive industry”, Archer said.
Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumer Organisation, said car manufacturers should “compensate consumers for the damage they suffered”.
The Commission has pressured Volkswagen to compensate carowners whose vehicles were recalled or altered to be less fuel efficient after the scandal broke.
On 18 September 2015, US authorities accused VW of installing so-called "defeat devices" in nearly half a million cars between 2009 and 2015 to make them seem less polluting than they were.
Investigators found that some cars spewed out up to 40 times more harmful nitrogen oxide - linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases - than legally allowed.
Volkswagen confessed that 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide were fitted with the manipulating software, sending the carmaker's shares into a tailspin.
Most cars affected bear the Volkswagen brand, but vehicles made by other VW group companies such as Audi, Seat and Skoda were also equipped with the software.
VW's chief executive Martin Winterkorn offered his "deepest apologies" to the public but denied any personal wrongdoing. He resigned on 23 September 2015.