European internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and SMEs Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska appeared in plenary to address MEPs on the recent Volkswagen (VW) scandal, which revealed the car manufacturer had been cheating its emissions test results.
It later emerged, in a report by Brussels-based NGO Transport and Environment, that many other carmakers have also been providing misleading emissions test results.
Giovanni La Via, chair of Parliament's environment, public health and food safety committee, was the first to address the Commissioner. He said that recent events made for "a very sad story, because as legislators, we believed that over the years, we had contributed in a practical fashion to reducing car emissions."
"We thought we had reached important targets that ensured citizens were able to live in a clean environment. In fact, the situation is completely different. We haven't been able to guarantee cleaner air. Legislative wishes were only delusory."
He told Bieńkowska, "I would like to know why the EU always has to wait for a scandal to erupt or tragedy to occur before acting. Did we really need this scandal to realise the system has to change?"
Vicky Ford, chair of Parliament's internal market and consumer protection committee, explained that, "this VW scandal is not just about money, it's also about health."
"It also brings a massive and fundamental breach of trust, but for the market to work properly, there must be trust. This principle has to apply across the single market. Once we lose the trust of consumers, it cannot be easily restored."
"If our member states agree laws, they must implement them. Every single national regulator must work to the same high standard, otherwise we face a race to the regulatory bottom," she warned.
Chair of Parliament's industry, research and energy committee Jerzy Buzek pointed out that, "this happened while we are negotiating TTIP (the trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership), and is a very sensitive issue for our relations with Washington."
"However, the case shows we should not be afraid of TTIP lowering our environmental standards - the US shares our standards, and is perhaps more advanced at scrutinising them," he stressed.
Michael Cramer, chair of Parliament's transport and tourism committee, warned that, "without a change in mobility, we will not be able to stop climate change. But we cannot do this with cheating."
"This is not a case of technological shortcomings. VW decided to cheat for financial reasons. If they had been honest, their cars would have been a bit more expensive."
He explained, "this is extremely bad for taxpayers, as car tax often depends on CO2 emissions".
Bieńkowska tried to appease MEPs, saying, "I believe we will be able to overcome this. The European Commission and the member states have agreed to act quickly and collectively. We will investigate and establish the facts, and enforce the existing rules."
"We will also change the approval and surveillance system so this cannot happen again," she promised.
Several MEPs have come forward with their own suggestions as to how to deal with the VW scandal, including European People's Party Vice-Chair Françoise Grossetête, who said, "we need to put in place common European car emission tests that resemble real driving conditions as closely as possible."
"At the same time, let the VW case serve as a warning about the risks we take when we impose unrealistic goals without putting effective control measures in place. Ambitions are admirable, but first and foremost we need to have a pragmatic approach", she cautioned.
Her counterpart for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats for Europe, Kathleen Van Brempt, warned that, "criminal behaviour from any company, no matter the size, will not be tolerated. It not only erodes public trust and undermines the quality of European products, but it also causes significant health damage to the European population."
She called for, "an end to the European system where carmakers pay national testing organisations to perform the testing, choosing where they want their models to be tested and acting as funders of these testing authorities. We should establish an independent EU-type approval authority that will oversee testing and be truly independent."
Meanwhile, European United Left/Nordic Green Left MEP Merja Kyllönen underlined, "the European Union stands for the protection of European citizens and consumers. However, this massive fraud was revealed by the US market, proof that the EU monitoring system is weak. This will hamper the credibility of EU on the eve of COP 21."