Speaking in a hearing on the so-called ‘Dieselgate’ scandal, the German politician conceded that the ban of so-called defeat devices had not been defined precisely enough.
Verheugen also made a robust defence of the Commission in the affair, saying, “The EU rules were clear but were simply disregarded. There was no problem with the legislation but with respect for the law by the manufacturers.”
MEPs on Parliament's committee of inquiry into emission measurements in the automotive sector (EMIS) questioned the former Commission official on Tuesday on the VW exhaust scandal, including the differences between the rules regulating defeat devices for cars and those for trucks and buses.
As the Commissioner responsible for enterprise and industry between 2004 and 2010, Verheugen is the highest profile person to be quizzed so far by the committee, which was set up to investigate VW’s use of illegal emissions cheating software.
Verheugen is seen as the legislative “father” of the problematic directives and regulations on car emissions exposed by the Dieselgate scandal.
He had twice refused an earlier invitation to attend the hearing, saying he needed to clarify the role of his office in the run-up to the emissions testing scandal.
In a highly-charged hearing, he said he was not informed about EU member states missing their 2009 deadline to inform the Commission about how to punish the use of illegal emissions cheating software.
"No, I was not aware of that," he told the committee, adding that no member state had informed the Commission on time about the required "effective, proportionate and dissuasive" penalties, he said.
The EU emissions legislation, he said, was designed to ensure the safe operation of the vehicle in order not to endanger the driver or other citizens’ health and he did not expect that a European automaker would disregard the rules.
But, following questions by ECR group deputy Hans-Olaf Henkel, Verheugen admitted that the ban of defeat devices had not been defined precisely enough.
Verheugen also said he bore the responsibility for the EU regulation prohibiting the defeat devices and indirectly accused automobile manufacturers of misunderstanding the legislation.
Henkel replied, saying, “For the first time in the European Parliament, I have experienced a politician acknowledging his error."
He added, "Clearer definition would most likely not preclude the VW scandal from happening.
“However, the committee of inquiry, as well as the debate on whether other car producers such as Opel, Fiat or Renault fulfil current EU legislation would not be needed if Verheugen had introduced clear legal conditions concerning real driving emission testing.”
Some MEPs were particularly critical of Verheugen’s performance, with EPP group spokesperson on the committee, Krišjānis Kariņš saying, “He did not bring clarity to the issue during his appearance.
“Specifically, he did not explain why EU legislation on emissions was pushed through in 2007 when it was clearly known that real world driving car emissions vastly differ from those in laboratory conditions, to the detriment of public health and the environment.”
Kariņš said, “Verheugen did not provide a sufficient answer as to why there was no response to possible cheating by light duty vehicle producers following findings on truck manufacturers using defeat devices in the market in the United States back in 1998."
It has also become apparent, according to the deputy, that several other people in the European institutions bear responsibility for having put in place the controversial piece of legislation that made it possible for car manufacturers to cheat.
Further comment came from S&D group Vice-Chair and chair of the EMIS committee, Kathleen Van Brempt, who said, “I am happy that finally Verheugen accepted the invitation to speak and explain why certain decisions were taken at the time.
“We certainly need transparency and political accountability about what happened. It is obvious that something went wrong and we must understand why, so that we can take the necessary measures.
“His account on Tuesday was very important for the work of this committee but this is only the beginning. We will collect more evidence on the Barroso Commission and its dealing with car emissions when former Commissioners Antonio Tajani and Janez Potočnik answer our questions.”
Seb Dance, S&D group spokesperson on committee, was more scathing, saying it was “astonishing” that “clear linguistic differences" were proposed and agreed upon by the Commission for rules banning defeat devices for trucks and buses and for cars.
Dance added, “Why would the Commission propose two sets of rules that aim to tackle the same problem? Why did the Commission not include a reference to the type-approval test procedure in the definition of defeat devices for cars, despite the fact similar wording had proven to be effective in stopping emissions cheating in the heavy duty vehicles sector?
"If the Commission was aware of the dangers of defeat devices more than 15 years ago for trucks and buses, why were these definitions not used for subsequent legislation for cars?"
Elsewhere, GUE/NGL group MEP Cornelia Ernst said that it was right that Verheugen had faced the Committee because, “Questions over his failure to oversee the implementation of the type approval regulation have been piling up and thus it became unavoidable for the former Commissioner to attend the hearing.
“Unsurprisingly, Verheugen continues to point the finger at member states, absolving himself from blame.
"The hearings so far have confirmed that big gaps existed between emissions measurements under laboratory conditions and in real driving situations. Seemingly, Verheugen was aware of this situation yet did nothing to intervene.”
The German MEP accused the former Commissioner of “doing the bidding of industry giants at the expense of the environment” when crafting the legislation, saying, “When Verheugen appointed the CARS 21 high level group in 2005, his goal was to ensure competitiveness of the European car industry and thus the work group was composed mainly of lobbyists for the car industry.
“The responsibility of Verheugen lies firstly in supporting the interests of the car lobbyists and secondly in failing to monitor the implementation of the regulations.”
Further reaction to Verheugen's committee appearance came from Dutch MEP Dennis de Jong who said, “Verheugen stated in the hearing that he wasn't aware about the irregularities happening in the emissions tests. That is not surprising given that CARS 21 was composed mainly of the automotive sector and that voices from civil society were excluded.
“He should have allowed for environmental and consumer groups to take part in the work group that issued the recommendations that shaped the final legislation.”
The committee has completed the first phase of the hearings with experts, trade associations and non-governmental organisations. Committee members have so far also questioned Stavros Dimas, environment Commissioner from 2004 to 2010, as well as car manufacturers, including Mitsubishi, Renault and Volkswagen.