[eng] Can Europe survive the Volkswagen emissions scandal?

Article published on Jan. 26, 2017
Article published on Jan. 26, 2017

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

After facing economic difficulties and the migrant crisis, a new controversial issue is emerging among the EU: the environmental one. Recently, the exposure of the Volkswagen scandal and the Parliament being against the creation of a committee of inquiry into the case, puts even more at risk coherence and stability among European institutions.

A few weeks away from the COP21,  difficulties in the EU and political frictions seem to have a new victim: environment. On September 20th 2015, one of the largest automobile scandal of the history was being revealed:  the Dutch industry leader Volkswagen then publicly acknowledged the use of  cheat softwares to bypass environmental standards imposed to diesel vehicles; more than 11 millions of which would be concerned. 

Das fraud

A month after, on October 27th 2015, the European Parliament rejected the creation of a parliamentary committee of inquiry to define how the Commission and the member states regulate environmental issues. The proposal by the Greens, endorsed by the center (ALDE) and the radical left (GUE), obtained 209 voices in favour and 453 against.

The reject of the inquiry proposal is all the more surprising as the evidence are reliable and backed up by scientific proofs. In May 2014, the International Council for Clean Transportation, a non-governmental organization, published a damning report showing that the emission levels of some diesel vehicles, especially the Jetta, are up to 35 times superior to the authorized emission thresholds. This report, approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), offers a large data bank and is therefore considered a legal and scientific proof.

Then, how to explain such a turnaround from the European Parliament, especially a few months away from the COP21, an important milestone in the environmental talks?

                      -  The influence of politico-economic factors 

For some people, this refusal would be linked to political motives. The British daily newspaper  Financial Times had indeed revealed that Janez Potocnik, the previous European Commissioner for Environment had been well aware of the case since February 2013 and had informed Antonio Tajani, then European Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship. Based on these elements, some people like Pascal Durand (Member of the European Parliament EELV), conclude that defending private interests has now become more important than defending general ones.

                       - The weaknesses of a struggling and emerging European legislation

The Greens also acknowledge the current flaws of the European legislation on environment. According to the present legislation establishing pollution thresholds, adopted in 2007, tests aimed at measuring the pollutant emissions are run in laboratory and not in urban setting. Therefore, the results are questionable since they do not take into account traffic and driving under real conditions.


European policies on environment are too weak

Similarly,  the European Commission put forward a proposal to implement a new test procedure for vehicles emissions, following the Volkswagen emissions scandal. However, it has many exceptions: for instance, the manufacturers would be allowed to sell vehicles exceeding the legal thresolds of 50 to 60%. 

Therefore, rejecting the creation of a parliamentary committee of inquiry appears to prove, once again, how hard it is for Europe to implement legislation on a polemical topic which is beyond the competence of national states. De facto, this decision transfers the judgment of the case to national courts and is a new challenge for European construction. Member states should vote in the weeks to come. 

A few weeks away from the COP21, a global issue, it seems like Europe is not best equipped to fight climate issues. Though  efforts that have been made need to be hailed, European regulation on environment remains extremely new, ill-suited to reality and submitted to politico-economic factors. However, one thing is clear: environment is more than ever a topic of global concern and when it is dealt with, the European legal and political organisation will be changed.