“Dieselgate” aftermath: is there a need for an EU regulator for vehicle emissions?  [PDF version]

Martin Nesbit reflects on the IEEP’s recent work for the EU committee of enquiry into the “dieselgate” emission scandal where the EU’s current system, based on competing national regulators, has a number of avoidable design flaws. Should we take the logical step and create a European regulator?


Following the revelation of Volkswagen’s use in the US of software designed to provide misleading results in emissions test cycles, and the likely presence of similar systems in the EU market, the European Parliament set up a committee of inquiry into Emission Measurements in the Automotive Sector (EMIS). The Committee is working at speed, and is expected to produce its report early in 2017. 

To help the Committee, IEEP prepared a comparative study of EU and US legislation on vehicle emissions and on the so-called “defeat devices” used to bend the constraints imposed by testing for the emissions limit values. Martin Nesbit presented the report to the Committee on 5 December explaining the significant gaps in the EU system compared to the US including, for example, the potential for manufacturers to choose their own regulator, lack of clarity on the ban on defeat devices, and the lack of a requirement on manufacturers to provide regulators with a detailed list of emissions control devices used. 

One Committee member asked why the report had not proposed the establishment of an EU-level regulator. In truth, we had not done so because it seemed unlikely to be politically feasible. However, in principle, an EU level regulator would indeed be a sensible approach to addressing the shortcomings. It could help solve difficulties created by competition among national authorities and address the risk that authorities are too timid or under-resourced to take action against nationally powerful manufacturers. 

At a previous EMIS committee meeting, French minister, Ségolène Royale, had said that national authorities needed to be regulated by a European body. However, gaining the political commitment needed to create new EU bodies currently looks more difficult than ever, and the hurdles – getting agreement on the required budget and investigative powers and a radical overhaul of the type approval system – are many. Therefore the first policy response should perhaps be to focus on tackling the worst weaknesses of the current system. 

In the longer run, however, maybe there is also a need for a more general reflection on whether implementation problems linked to product conformity call for more, rather than less, of a European approach. There are plenty of areas of environmental legislation where implementation needs a tailored approach, reflecting national cultural and geographical realities. Car manufacturing isn’t one of them. The vehicle emissions legislation aims at product conformity with a single set of standards, and it is vital that it is applied with the same high rigour across the EU. Other similar areas, like chemicals and medicines legislation, have EU-level bodies. An effective EU-level response to the vehicle emissions scandal could help to make the case for a more rational and understandable allocation of responsibilities between the EU level and the national level.

For more information on the project, please contact Martin Nesbit.