Germany closes ranks to stop the end of the car

Germany closes ranks to stop the end of the car
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 08 March 2023 06:36

The government in Berlin objects to the EU’s zero-emissions legislation in order to protect its carmaking industry.

BERLIN — The EU’s largest economy is becoming the bloc’s biggest troublemaker.

In an effort to protect its leading industry from the wrenching change of scrapping combustion-engine cars, Germany is blocking final approval of the European Union’s legislation to ban the sale of new CO2-emitting cars from 2035.

That’s throwing the EU’s efforts to cut greenhouse gases from transport — a key part of its bid to become climate neutral by 2050 — into disarray. It’s also prompting warnings that such hardball tactics might set a bad example for other EU countries willing to go to the wall to protect what they see as key national interests.

The EU’s combustion engine ban seemed a done deal. Both the European Parliament and EU countries in the Council had agreed to a law that would forbid the sale of new CO2-emitting cars and vans from 2035, making electric vehicles the norm. EU ministers were scheduled to give final approval on Tuesday — but then Germany balked.

The reason: The Free Democratic Party (FDP), one of three parties making up Germany’s ruling coalition, wants the European Commission to include a loophole in the legislation that would allow sales of vehicles with combustion engines, as long as they use so-called e-fuels. These synthetic fuels are climate neutral but require a lot more energy to produce than charging an electric vehicle.

“The situation is unacceptable,” said Pascal Canfin, a French MEP from President Emmanuel Macron’s party who chairs the European Parliament’s environment committee and ran negotiations on the zero-emissions legislation.

“It is not acceptable that a country comes back on its word. Germany approved the deal," Canfin told reporters, calling on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz not to go down “in the history of Europe as the one that killed the Green Deal.”

Nevertheless, the FDP insists on a derogation to the EU law, citing the need for "openness" to new technologies. Following a series of painful defeats in regional elections over the past year, the Free Democrats have made the salvation of the piston-powered combustion engine — a significant symbol but also a major source of jobs — a key political priority.

Although Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met with the German government on Sunday to push for a retreat, on Monday Scholz made clear that Berlin’s not backing down until the Commission presents a proposal to include e-fuels in the 2035 legislation.

“The government is united in expecting that the European Commission ... will make a proposal which is aimed at how e-fuels can be used after 2035," the chancellor said.

’Gambling away trust’

Together with Italy, Poland and Bulgaria, which have also voiced objections to the EU law, Germany can form a blocking minority that prevents the EU from adopting the zero-emissions mandate.

However, not everyone in Berlin reckons that’s a good idea — particularly the environment-friendly Greens, also part of the ruling coalition.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attend a press conference after meeting at Schloss Meseberg on Sunday | Carsten Koall/Getty Images

"It’s always difficult when you suddenly come up with a different opinion in the last few meters," complained Green lawmaker Anton Hofreiter, the chair of the Bundestag’s European Affairs Committee. "By doing so, Germany is also gambling away trust at the European level. This should generally not be done, regardless of the content of the question."

Berlin’s actions are also sounding alarm bells in Brussels. There’s “a fear that countries like Poland start using the same tactics, that the current German behavior legitimates attacks on other climate files,” said a diplomat from an EU country seeking more ambitious action on climate change.

Rasmus Andresen, a Green EU lawmaker from Germany, also warned that Berlin is creating a precedent that will "now be abused by other EU countries but also by actors in the European Parliament who want to get rid of the Green Deal. This is why an agreement between the Commission and the German government now becomes crucial and highly politically relevant.”

Andresen remarked that Germany had in the past blasted countries like Poland or Hungary for taking the EU hostage and threatening to block legislation in their battles with Brussels over the rule of law.

"Right-wing populist governments like in Italy, for example, or certainly in Poland or Hungary, will of course then copy us in the future if they take certain issues hostage and argue that others are doing the same," the Green lawmaker said.

"You simply have to understand that Germany is of course not just any country, but the largest and economically strongest EU member state, to which other countries look up and always orient themselves to some extent," he said. "And that’s why this is highly problematic and could lead to the fact that reliability — which is very important in European democracy — will be guaranteed a bit less in the future."

Different positions

The FDP disputes that it’s endangering Germany’s reputation with the last-minute blockade.

"It would be misleading to draw conclusions about Germany’s reliability in Europe from the discussion about the end of the internal combustion engine," said party whip Torsten Herbst. "The current debate is a normal negotiation process."

The party says Berlin only gave preliminary approval to the 2035 deal last year because it understood the Commission would propose a way of including e-fuels. It now says it feels cheated because the Commission hasn’t done so.

“We request a legal regulation from the European Commission, the European Commission promises it to us, then doesn’t do it, and is completely surprised that we don’t simply acquiesce,” Transport Minister Volker Wissing, an FDP member, said last week.

Although the economically liberal party says it’s trying to protect carmakers, the industry is much more ambivalent about Berlin’s bare-knuckle tactics.

Haggling over the terms of the 2035 ban creates “uncertainty among consumers, but also in the industry, which is investing in electric vehicles, batteries and charging infrastructure,” said Martin Sander, Ford’s general manager in Europe. The company has pledged to go all-electric from 2026. Its rival Volkswagen, the world’s largest carmaker, aims to drop European production of combustion engine cars by 2033.

Barbara Moens, Federica Di Sario and Karl Matthiesen contributed reporting from Brussels.

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