Volkswagen scandal persists as EU clamps down on non-enforcement

The European Union has initiated legal action against certain member states for their failure to enforce emissions standards following Volkswagen's so-called 'dieselgate' scandal.

Markus Schreiber/AP
A security guard stands on the roof of the Volkswagen old power plant and monitors the area during the company's annual press conference in Wolfsburg, Germany, April 28. The European Union is starting legal action against Britain, Germany, Spain, and Luxembourg for not imposing penalties against Volkswagen for using illegal software to hide vehicle emissions.

After reaching a $15 billion settlement with US authorities for cheating its way around emissions standards, German-based automaker Volkswagen has prompted new legal proceedings closer to home – this time implicating the balance of power between the European Union and its 28 member states.

The European Commission initiated legal action Thursday to compel seven nations to crack down on diesel car manufacturers for the sake of fighting pollution, as frustrations mount over what some see as government complicity in the so-called dieselgate scandal. The legal notice accuses Britain, Spain, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, and the Czech Republic of failing to penalize companies that violate EU regulations, and it gives the nations two months to respond or face being dragged into court.

The commission said, furthermore, that it believes Britain and Germany broke the law by declining to provide the commission the full technical details their investigations into the Volkswagen emissions scandal unveiled.

"It is a strong rebuke of Germany and other countries' inaction," said Monique Goyens, head of the European Consumer lobby (BEUC), hailing the action as an important step to protect European citizens.

Volkswagen had included "defeat device" software in certain diesel vehicles – nearly 500,000 sold in the United States alone – that detected when an individual vehicle was being tested and kept it compliant with emissions standards while it was being observed, only to forget the standards while on the open road. Such devices have been illegal under EU law since 2007. Despite that fact and subsequent revelations that several other carmakers have used similar techniques, no European country has doled out punishments.

"All of them are still protecting their national interest," Bas Eickhout, a Green member of the European Parliament, said, according to Reuters. 

About 12 million people across the bloc are employed by carmakers, who say they have done nothing wrong because the law permits them to turn off emissions control systems to protect engines. Germany has pointed to that loophole as evidence that the law has problems, but Europe's Industry Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska has insisted that the law's wording is clear.

Looking forward, the fallout from this scandal likely means that diesel passenger cars will remain an outlier in the American market and could become a thing of the past in Europe, as John Voelcker wrote for Green Car Reports in September. Even so, Volkswagen's comeback among US consumers has been easier than observers expected.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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