Is it time to find closure on the ongoing Dieselgate legal case and agree a compromise between environmentalists, patients, car owners and the car industry? That was the key question raised during a recent webinar on the need to pave the way for a fair and green recovery of the European automotive sector, organised by the Parliament Magazine and the PA International Foundation.
The Coronavirus crisis has had a significant impact on Europe’s car manufacturing industry and the industry is looking to the EU to help fund its post-Covid recovery. However, while car producers are major European employers and industrial innovators and considered crucial to Europe’s economic recovery, the sector is still saddled with the negative fallout associated with the so-called Dieselgate scandal.
Opening the online discussion on 16 July, Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee István Újhélyi said, “Whether you are a person with a respiratory disease, a car owner, a car manufacturer or a regulator, we all have to answer the same question. What needs to change?”
The Hungarian Socialist MEP said that those suffering from respiratory diseases must be treated equally to other damaged parties who are claiming that the car industries are in breach of key European environmental laws. “All of us are living in unprecedented and challenging times.”
Dr Axel Friedrich of the German environmental and consumer protection association Deutsche Umwelthilfe questioned whether the situation would be resolved anytime soon considering the unwillingness of the car industry, which is estimated to have already spent in excess of $30bn in fines, legal fees and buyback costs linked to Dieselgate, to accept responsibility. Friedrich, a former official at the German environmental protection agency, argued “If you want to swim into the future, you shouldn’t have a millstone around your neck. The millstone for the European car industry is of course Dieselgate. If you don’t solve the problem, you have no bright future.”
Currently there are more than 40 million dirty diesel cars on Europe’s roads, emitting 5 to 6 times more dangerous Nitrogen Oxide than legally permitted on average. “We have a huge number of cars on our roads that violate EU rules and regulations and pollute our environment and kill people”.
He reminded participants that inaction on reducing car emissions is a “big threat to our health”. Quoting figures from the EU’s Air Quality Directive he argued that the car industry’s use of equipment designed to interfere with or disable emissions controls under real-world driving conditions, so-called defeat devices, was illegal and specifically aimed at “getting around EU air quality legislation”.
“Numerous courts at different levels, in different jurisdictions, have condemned the actions of Volkswagen and other car manufacturers as unlawful and in blatant violation of environmental and health regulations. It is unacceptable that car manufacturers still refuse to settle.” Dr Marten Oosting, Chair of the Supervisory Board of the pan-European Stichting Car Claim Foundation
He called for the hardware retrofit of all diesel cars, with the costs covered by the industry. He also questioned why retrofit, which is proven to drastically reduce emissions, has not been rolled out across Europe. “Why is there no European legislation? Why has the Commission not taken any effort to develop a European retrofit directive?”
Dr Marten Oosting, Chair of the Supervisory Board of the pan-European Stichting Car Claim Foundation, told participants that the European Parliament’s 2017 Dieselgate Inquiry committee report, “clearly pinpointed where European and national institutions failed to prevent the massive breach of European law by the car industry”.
But he explained, since then, little had changed and he argued that there was mounting proof that the car industry had continued to make use of 'defeat devices’. “Tens of millions of dirty diesels are still crowding European roads, contributing significantly to serious public health problems and environmental harm.”
Oosting, a former Dutch Ombudsman, argued that both the EU institutions and national governments had been found wanting over the Dieselgate scandal. “National politics in member states - protecting perceived job security- play a critical role in shielding the car industry against the looming costs of compensation for the harm inflicted on European citizens.”
And EU policymakers, he suggests, have taken a far too passive approach. “Despite strong language and condemnation, the European Commission has only half-heartedly taken on member states that fail to properly enforce existing rules.”
Directly addressing car manufacturers, Oosting said he was, “deeply concerned by the total lack of Corporate Social Responsibility of the car industry”, adding that “Numerous courts at different levels, in different jurisdictions, have condemned the actions of Volkswagen and other car manufacturers as unlawful and in blatant violation of environmental and health regulations”. It is unacceptable, he argued, that car manufacturers still refuse to settle.
“This may be the first time in human history that all of us are subjected to the same threat at the same time. It may also be our last chance to fundamentally redo how we respond to such challenges” Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee István Újhélyi
“This behaviour is reckless, to both deceived consumers and society as a whole. I therefore urge European car manufacturers to turn halfway, and show readiness for consultation aimed at a friendly settlement. I also appeal to the bodies of the EU to make an effort to ensure that the car industry recognises and takes its responsibility in this regard.”
Zoltán Massay-Kosubek, Policy Manager for Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility at the European Public Health Alliance, began his presentation by highlighting the case of Ella, a nine year old girl in London who sadly died in 2013 from an asthma attack linked to the city’s air pollution levels.
“She was not alone. She was one of 27 children, who also died that very same year, just in the UK, but she was the first one, in a sense where it could be demonstrated that the primary cause of her death was air pollution. Every life matters, and even one death is too many,” said Massay-Kosubek.
He highlighted a 2018 independent study by Dutch research institute CE Delft which revealed that across the EU, healthcare costs linked to road transport are estimated to be between €60bn-€80bn a year. “So I think healthcare compensation for national healthcare budgets should also be part of the discussion.”
Marie-Paul Bénassi, the European Commission’s Head of Unit for enforcement of consumer law and redress at DG Justice and Consumers, told the webinar participants to make the earliest use of the new EU collective redress instruments and the updated Consumer Protection Cooperation Regulation at member state level. “Consumers across the single market are entitled to receive equal treatment. The single market is a big advantage for consumers and traders. This should also be a reality when something goes wrong”, said Bénassi.
“Consumers across the single market are entitled to receive equal treatment. The single market is a big advantage for consumers and traders. This should also be a reality when something goes wrong” Marie-Paul Bénassi, the European Commission’s Head of Unit for enforcement of consumer law and redress at DG Justice and Consumers
She also referred to current Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová. “As [former] Commissioner for Justice and Consumer Affairs she was extremely clear: Consumers should be treated equally and fairly across the European Union. We are trying to build systems that enable consumers across the Union to obtain the benefits of their rights when something is not working… Type approval legislation was not working in certain member states”, she said, adding that it was unthinkable that car producers should get away with breaching environmental laws. “We know the industrial tactics, we know they will delay, we know they will try to get away from financial burdens.”
In a key video address, Commission Vice President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight, Maroš Šefčovič, said, “Clean mobility is a must”. Referring to billions of investments by EU member states and the Commission in the automotive industry, he promoted the implementation of the Strategic Action Plan for Batteries with concrete measures to “ensure European competitiveness and decrease our dependence on third country suppliers in order to facilitate the value chain in Europe….The industry must change and the Commission will do whatever it can to help.”
Several speakers agreed that the current German EU Council Presidency led by Angela Merkel, a scientist, is uniquely positioned to effectively chart a way forward through a compromise between industry, consumers, patients and the environment.
Újhélyi advised that “the economic recovery should come through the European green deal. There is a unique possibility here with the German presidency. This may be the first time in human history that all of us are subjected to the same threat at the same time. It may also be our last chance to fundamentally redo how we respond to such challenges.”
Summing up he said the main message was, “that we should continue this discussion” after the Parliament’s plenary session vote on the Environment committee’s recent amendment on real driving emission tests and NOx limits, in September.
In case you missed it, here's the full webinar video: