Europe’s civil war over car engine ban
It’s Team Germany vs. Team France going toe-to-toe over the the EU’s automotive industry.
BRUSSELS — The future of the internal combustion engine is turning into a Franco-German war.
An alliance of car-friendly countries led by Germany on Monday dialed up the temperature in a fight against EU legislation that would consign the engine to the scrapheap as part of landmark efforts to slash greenhouse gas emissions from transport.
Following a meeting in Strasbourg, key ministers from a gang of car-loving countries said rules ending the sale of new combustion-engine cars and vans by 2035 — already accepted by the European Parliament and agreed in principle by member countries — needed changes. Or else.
"There is no [European Commission] proposal that corresponds to what we expect, and that is why we have not yet reached our goal," German Transport Minister Volker Wissing said after the meeting,
But France isn’t planning to surrender.
Paris signalled it will stand behind the EU’s 2035 zero emissions plan, as has Madrid, putting two of the bloc’s largest car countries alongside a group of smaller states already committed to slashing CO2 emissions from passenger cars.
“We are ready to fight for it, because [to delay] it is an environmental mistake and I also think it is an economic mistake,” France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told France Info on Monday — ahead of the Strasbourg meeting, which no French minister attended.
In the opposite corner, the German government, alongside allies Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, is pressing for a loophole for cars to be able to run on e-fuels — a synthetic and somewhat greener alternative to fossil fuels that can be used in conventional combustion engines.
Together they carry enough weight to veto the legislation, along with separate future laws covering toxic exhaust pollutants dubbed Euro 7 as well as truck fuel efficiency rules.
Not everyone cares about e-fuels as much as the Germans, according to Martin Kupka, the Czech transport minister who convened the engine alliance summit in Strasbourg, but a list of demands to the Commission will cover all three pieces of vehicle legislation and will be sent in the next days.
Deal or no deal
Germany has already rejected Brussels’ first attempt at a 2035 armistice.
As POLITICO reported last week, the Commission was willing to propose a legal declaration that would toughen up non-binding language on the margins of the agreed 2035 car and van CO2 standards text into a loophole for e-fuels.
But that went down badly with Berlin, where Wissing’s car-friendly Free Democratic Party controls the transport ministry.
The FDP feels it has hit on a potent political issue by tapping into fears over the wrenching change that will accompany a transition to electric vehicles — something that will be a death knell for hundreds of companies specializing in components for combustion engines but which have no place in an EV world.
“The Commission’s proposal was worded so softly that not much could be made of it," said Bernd Reuther, the FDP’s transport policy spokesperson. "It was pushing things very far into the future. We don’t want such a wishy-washy compromise."
The Commission has little wiggle room to find a deal since the European Parliament has said it won’t reopen the final text agreed last year. There is very little time to act before the EU’s legislative calendar ends with next year’s European election.
"We can’t let ourselves be put under time pressure either, because it wasn’t us who left the matter open for months," Wissing said, arguing the Commission should have fixed the issue last summer.
Proposals to set up a working group to assess options for e-fuels and to agree to circle back and review the law in 2026, as is standard practice for EU legislation, weren’t acceptable either. "They fall short of what we need," said Wissing.
The FDP’s Reuther wants an entirely separate piece of legislation covering e-fuels that would override the fleet efficiency standards; but that would take time to draft and there’s no guarantee it would be approved by the Parliament and other countries anyway.
Czech minister Kupka said that engine-friendly ministers were confident a deal could be reached in the coming days with the Commission, including "a legally binding exemption in other ways, not with reopening the legislation.”
But France is not interested in changing a measure that was agreed over nearly two tortuous years of talks, finalized among EU countries during France’s European Council presidency last year, and only needs a formal stamp of approval from ministers to become law.
“Economically it is incoherent, industrially it is dangerous, it is not in our national interest, it is not in the interest of our national manufacturers and above all it is not in the interest of the planet,” Le Maire said of efforts to stall the plan.
The standoff aligns France with other countries backing the 2035 clean car target, such as Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands.
The row undermines Europe’s claim to be a global leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and also risks spilling into broader debates over the balance of power in continental politics.
“For the French, this situation also represents an opportunity,” said one diplomat from a country in favor of an engine ban. “The more they can contribute to the idea that Germany goes at it alone, the more it strengthens the view that the Germans are an unreliable partner in Europe.”
Rather than protecting legacy technology, Le Maire wants Europe’s automakers to rapidly make the switch to electric vehicles and has supported France’s massive state subsidy programs for EVs, as well as EU efforts to pour billions into creating a home-grown battery cell industry. Spain is making similar moves to back batteries.
For Le Maire, it’s more important to supercharge Europe’s shift to electric vehicles than to slow the pace of transition by creating uncertainty around 2035.
“We can’t say that there is a climate emergency — which is the case, which we all know in our cities, in our metropolises, which are still far too polluted — and then step back on the objective of switching to electric vehicles,” said Le Maire.