EU diplomats reacted with surprise and annoyance to Germany’s last-minute refusal to back a ban on the sale of new combustion engine cars by 2035, which has led to a postponement of the vote to approve the law.
Despite initially agreeing to new rules to tighten carbon emission standards for cars, including a 100% CO2 reduction for new cars and vans from 2035 – a de facto combustion engine ban – Germany said that it could not vote in favour of the agreement as it is now.
German Transport Minister Volker Wissing is pushing the European Commission to come forward with a proposal that would allow e-fuels, synthetic fuels made with electricity that are carbon-neutral if they use CO2 taken from the atmosphere, to be allowed in combustion engine vehicles sold after 2035.
Italy had a similar change of heart, telling reporters that the country, led by the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party, could no longer support the text, which was negotiated under previous Italian leader Mario Draghi’s administration.
Combined with refusals to back the law from Poland and Bulgaria, the four nations now effectively form a “blocking minority”, jeopardising the passage of the legislation.
Sweden, the current holder of the Council of the EU presidency, announced Friday (3 March) that a vote of EU ambassadors would be pushed back, without specifying when the new vote will take place.
EU diplomats approached by EURACTIV criticised Germany’s abrupt change, questioning why it took place so late in the legislative process.
“It’s like Germany just found out they make cars,” one EU diplomat told EURACTIV.
There were also concerns that deciding to roll back previous internal agreements could set a dangerous precedent for future EU legislation.
However, not all sources reacted negatively. Others were pleased to see the vote to rubber-stamp the law postponed.
“Poland does not agree with increasing [the] burden on citizens,” a second EU diplomat said. “EU legislation should create an incentive for car manufacturers to offer zero-emission vehicles at the lowest possible cost to citizens and manufacturers should be encouraged to take the burden off the consumers.”
Surprise possible as von der Leyen meets Scholz
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is scheduled to meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz this weekend for a retreat in the town of Meseberg. While the meeting was ostensibly to discuss economic perspectives, it is now likely that the issue of Germany’s demand for a binding e-fuels clause will be raised.
German ministers will also be present, including the inner-governmental opponents Volker Wissing (FDP/Renew Europe) and Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens).
Asked whether the e-fuel question will be discussed with von der Leyen, a spokesperson of the German government told reporters on Friday that he didn’t “want to pre-empt the Chancellor’s talk with the European Commission President”.
“I don’t expect these day-to-day political issues to play a role there, but we can let ourselves be surprised,” the spokesperson added.
European Commission climate chief Frans Timmermans, who will not attend the meeting in Germany, previously came out against the use of e-fuels in passenger cars.
“We should not use [e-fuels] for road transport in any shape or form,” the Commission Vice-President told reporters at a press event on 14 February, citing the vast quantities of renewable energy required to create them.
Praise and condemnation of Germany’s abstention threat
Politicians from across the European Parliament were quick to react to the news of the postponement of the final vote.
The centre-right EPP group, which has long campaigned against a combustion engine ban, welcomed the possible derailment of the law.
“The EPP Group has consistently voted against such a ban and calls on the Member States to do the same. The ban will prevent innovation and cost thousands of jobs and will lead to the decline of a core European industry,” said MEP Jens Gieseke.
Conversely, Green EU lawmakers reacted with anger, criticising the idea of using e-fuels to power passenger vehicles.
“Filling up e-fuels in the car is like showering with champagne – too expensive and inefficient,” said German MEP Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg.
“It is illusory to assume that we can simply carry on as before if only the fuel becomes more environmentally friendly.”
Despite proponents of scrapping the ban positioning the move as in the interest of car buyers, BEUC, a consumer advocacy organisation, decried the slow progress in passing the law.
“It is frustrating to see this last-minute political wrangling about a cornerstone decision of the EU Green Deal,” said Dimitri Vergne, BEUC’s sustainability lead.
“The switch to battery electric cars is a no-brainer as it is the most cost-effective option to reduce driving costs for consumers, while curbing CO2 emissions from road transport.”
[Additional reporting by Kira Taylor / Jonathan Packroff]
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]