The European Parliament voted Thursday (17 December) to launch a committee of inquiry into the Volkswagen emissions scandal, with a mandate to investigate the failures of the European Commission and member states to enforce EU legislation.
The left wing of the European Parliament managed to force the vote onto the agenda for Thursday’s plenary session at the last minute.
More than 250 MEPs signed a request to launch a committee of inquiry into the Dieselgate scandal, which was presented to the Parliament’s conference of political group presidents on Wednesday (16 December).
MEPs voted by 354 votes to 229 to set up the committee, which will have one year to present its conclusions. A committee of inquiry has the power to summon witnesses and demand secret or confidential documents relevant to its investigations.
The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) declined to comment on the inquiry committee.
But Jacob Bangsgaard, director general of the consumer group Federation Internationale de l’Automobile’s (FIA) in Europe, said, “We urge the committee to be thorough and put in place a system of checks that will make cheating impossible in the future.”
The committee has a mandate to investigate the European Commission and member states’ failure to oversee emissions test procedures and to introduce tests under real-world driving conditions. It will also be allowed to investigate whether the Commission and member states buried evidence of “defeat devices” before the VW “dieselgate” scandal broke on 18 September 2015.
Last year, the refusal of the same politicians to establish a committee of inquiry into the tax evasion organised by Luxembourg, which broke with the Luxleaks scandal, caused frustration and consternation among many MEPs and NGOs.
But the environmental and public health implications of the Volkswagen revelations had a greater impact on Europe’s politicians and citizens. And the reputation of the European Parliament was also at stake: the repeated attempts by the Commission and the Council to brush aside the will of the Parliament are regularly criticised by MEPs.
In response to MEPs’ vote, Commission spokesperson Lucia Caudet said the EU executive “is more than ready to work with the European Parliament’s Committee of Inquiry.”
Caudet particularly emphasised that technology used to cheat emissions reporting is banned under EU law. “For our part, we have taken determined action to introduce the most robust emissions testing procedures in the world. And early next year, we will present proposals to improve the overall system that allows cars to be placed on the market,” she said.
Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout (Greens) welcomed the Parliament’s decision, saying, “Parliament has recognised its duty in providing a comprehensive EU-level response to dieselgate.” He added that “This inquiry must focus on the roles played by the responsible national authorities and the European Commission in allowing this regulatory breakdown to occur.”
The liberal ALDE group in Parliament also raised the question of the EU’s complicity in the scandal. British MEP Catherine Bearder (Liberal Democrats) said, “For too long, the EU and national authorities have turned a blind eye to widespread rigging of emissions tests in the car industry.”
Objections from the right-wing of the European Parliament focussed on the fact that emissions legislation is already scheduled for review, and that cases of fraud by car producers are already under investigation. The British Conservatives (ECR group) voted against the committee of inquiry because, they said, it is “Unnecessary and will add nothing to attempts to tackle the issue.”
Parliament to veto relaxation of emissions standards
The European Commission and member states agreed in October to relax the emissions standards for certain pollutants, and were prepared to give manufacturers extra time to improve the environmental performance of their car fleets.
But since Volkswagen had admitted to cheating lab tests to improve its emissions scores, this decision was roundly rebuffed by MEPs. “The answers we get [from the committee of inquiry] should strengthen the case for more effective pollution limits to be put in place as soon as possible,” Bearder said.
The European Parliament’s Environment Committee this Monday (14 December) asked MEPs to block the plans, and the issue will be a voted on in the January plenary session.
Catherine Bearder, a British Liberal Democrat MEP (ALDE group), said, “For too long, the EU and national authorities have turned a blind eye to widespread rigging of emissions tests in the car industry. Years of dirty deals made behind closed doors have led to more dirty air in our cities. This inquiry will lift the lid on this scandal and ensure there is full public accountability for what happened. The answers we get should strengthen the case for more effective pollution limits to be put in place as soon as possible.”
Dutch Green MEP (Greens/EFA), said, “A clear majority of MEPs has today voted to approve the creation of a European Parliament inquiry into the car pollution scandal. Parliament has recognised its duty in providing a comprehensive EU-level response to dieselgate, which has shaken the credibility of the EU's role in regulating the car industry. With evidence that the European Commission is also implicated in the scandal, it was essential that the EP assume responsibility for investigating the revelations and the consequences to be drawn.
“This inquiry must focus on the roles played by the responsible national authorities and the European Commission in allowing this regulatory breakdown to occur. The European Commission has serious questions to answer over revelations that it failed to act on evidence it received that car manufacturers were using manipulation to avoid complying with EU car pollution rules. It must also explain why it sat on its hands in the face of evidence that many vehicles on the market exceeded EU pollution norms.”
British Conservative MEP Julie Girling said, "We cannot support a Committee of Inquiry which will bring no additional light to a situation already subject to intense scrutiny by the Member States and the Commission. When the committee presents its conclusions later next year it will only service to ask questions that have already been answered. This seems more like political posturing than the real, effective action that is required."
US regulators found that Volkswagen designed software for close to half a million diesel cars that gave false emissions data during the laboratory tests. Experts consider that tests on the road are more difficult to be cheated.
In Europe, while the European Commission and the national authorities are preparing more strict emissions limits, a number of inquiries have already been opened in France.
But the executive seems reluctant to open any kind of inquiry. El?bieta Bie?kowska, the Internal Market Commissioner, has upset MEPs by saying that the executive intends not to act until the member states have conducted their own national investigations.
The presidents of the European Parliament´s Environment, Transport, Internal Market and Industry committees have decided to investigate how Volkswagen cars could have cheated the testing system without the fraud being picked up at any stage by the European Commission.