Frans Timmermans made a stirring declaration of the European Commission’s commitment to greater transparency in European public service this week. I don’t set much store by it.
The first vice president of the Commission proclaimed that greater transparency would mean: “The quality of the legislation will improve, the accountability of what we do will improve, the knowledge of MEPs, national officials and Commission officials will improve.”
Timmermans was launching a public consultation to last throughout the month of May on plans for mandatory registration for organizations and individuals seeking to influence the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Effectively, it seeks to make mandatory the existing voluntary register, which is jointly run by the Parliament and Commission, and to extend its scope to include the Council of Ministers.
If I am consulted, here is my response: I am underwhelmed. It’s not that I have any reason to doubt Timmermans’ personal motives, beyond my habitual skepticism about politicians. He is by background a Dutch socialist, so instinctively and ideologically he probably subscribes to greater openness in lawmaking.
He is a former Europe minister as well as a foreign minister, so at least intellectually he knows the importance of opening up the EU institutions, which have long been caricatured as secretive and unaccountable.
But the Transparency Register is at best a sideshow and a distraction. Those less forgiving than me might call it a smokescreen.
Perhaps we are supposed to admire the Commission’s steadfastness. The promise of a mandatory register was one element of Jean-Claude Juncker’s program for making the EU more democratic — itself one of his ten priorities for his mandate as president. So Timmermans is delivering on a promise made by his leader.
In practice, however, it is bemusing and bewildering. I marvel at the insouciance with which the Commission can stick to its pre-ordained path.
For me, though apparently not for Timmermans, the world was turned upside-down by Dieselgate. The admission by Volkswagen in September last year that it had been cheating on emissions tests raises so many questions about the EU’s ability to regulate that it makes a mandatory register for lobbyists almost irrelevant. To resort to a motoring metaphor, it is as if Timmermans wants to add an exciting new safety feature — a warning light that comes on if the driver is too close to the traffic ahead — to a car that has been found to have bald tires, failing brakes and no headlights. The EU has to get the basics right before it can credibly create a mandatory register.
Why do I believe Dieselgate undermines the EU’s credibility on regulation? Let me count at least some of the ways.
One of the scary things about Dieselgate is that it took American regulators to bring Volkswagen’s confession into the open. Why was it that regulators in Europe — whether regional, national or European — could not prescribe the kind of testing that uncovered discrepancies between on-the-road emissions and emissions in laboratory tests? Did the European single market — requiring as it does the harmonization of procedures and the mutual recognition of regulators — in some way undermine the EU’s defenses? Were the regulators taken captive by the car industry? And if they were, why? Was it simply that the regulators became dependent on fee income, or was there something more sophisticated at play: a car industry variation on Stockholm syndrome in which the regulators develop a sympathy for those they are regulating?
What ought to be embarrassing for the Commission is that it had within its own ranks information that the car industry was cheating the emissions tests. The Joint Research Centre — a department of the Commission that carries out scientific research — accumulated evidence of discrepancies between emissions in the laboratory and in real life. These were euphemistically known as defeat strategies.
For whatever reason — and that ought to be the subject of an internal Commission inquiry — the JRC’s evidence was ignored. Moreover, the arguments of the environment and climate change departments for stricter limits on car emissions were defeated by the departments for enterprise (on behalf of the car industry) and transport. Given what we now know about at least one of the carmakers, the decision to go easy on the car industry is hard to justify, but it is just as important to ask whether it was justified by the evidence available at the time.
Some might seek to explain away past failures by suggesting that Günter Verheugen, the (German) former European commissioner for enterprise, prevailed over Stavros Dimas, the (Greek) former European commissioner for the environment, or that, in the next college, Antonio Tajani (Italian — industry) prevailed over Janez Potočnik (Slovenian — environment) and Connie Hedegaard (Danish — climate change). Such an explanation is tempting because the cast of commissioners has changed, implying that things are different now.
But such an explanation is too simplistic and not just because it ignores the multidimensional nature of the lobbying battle — involving as it did the German government (BMW, Daimler and Volkswagen were likely to lose out from tougher emissions requirements) and the French government, on behalf of the French carmaking groups Renault-Nissan and PSA Peugeot Citroën, plus the European Parliament, where German MEPs figure large in the biggest political groups.
Such an explanation by personality and nationality imagines the lobbying battle over car emissions as some kind of board game, in which the result is the product of interactions between players — who paid whom, who employed whom, who spoke to whom, who voted for what. (Note that the mandatory register for lobbyists is a neat addition to this kind of board game.)
But what such explanations belittle — or even ignore altogether — is the importance of accurately identifying policy goals, and holding on to them. EU policy on car emissions was desperately compromised by confusion over objectives.
The EU was overly fixated on bringing down carbon-dioxide emissions in order to reduce the threat to climate change. That fixation encouraged a shift by the carmakers — and retailers — to diesel-powered cars, helped by a new generation of more fuel-efficient diesel engines. However, the performance of diesel engines was much less satisfactory than petrol engines on NOx emissions and particulates. So, perversely, the Commission’s obsession with carbon emissions triggered a sharp deterioration in air quality in cities.
Mixed fuel messages
It is worth drawing out two details of this trade-off. While the theory might have been that carmakers would comply with both NOx and CO2 limits, in practice some of them made a choice because they didn’t have the technology to do both. Additionally, the escalation in NOx emissions was detected but did not prompt a reassessment of policy. Scientists mapped, for example, how NOx emissions built up to dangerous levels in central London during the commuting day, but that evidence of what a switch to diesels was doing to air quality did not feed back to lawmakers or regulators to prevent this unintended consequence.
Confusion over policy objectives was also to be seen in the argument over where and how to set the limits for carbon emissions (by fleet average for each carmaker), when the carmakers managed to shift some of the obligation to the fuel producers. As part of the negotiations on CO2 limits for carmakers, a target of reducing carbon emissions by 1 percent each year was added to a revision of the EU’s fuel-quality directive. The effect was to give an incentive to the production of biofuel (because, without biofuel, there was no way for the fuelmakers to achieve the 1 percent target).
The EU was already confused about its motives on biofuel policy. Depending on the audience, support for the use of biofuel was justified by three arguments in varying quantities: combating climate change, achieving greater energy security, and providing another source of income for domestic agriculture. Those confused motives permitted EU lawmakers to avert their eyes from uncomfortable evidence that first-generation biofuel was more costly in terms of carbon emissions than the fuel it was displacing. In turn that meant that the horse-trading over what carbon-emissions limits should be imposed on the carmakers — shifting some of the burden to biofuel production — was unsound.
Even this small amount of policy detail hints at the extent of the EU’s regulatory failure. It tells us that the debacle over car-emissions cannot be reduced to a tale of a rogue carmaker having deceived an alert and competent regulator. (Even if that were true, it would be no defense of the EU. A system of regulation that presupposes everyone behaves honestly is not worth the pages of the EU’s Official Journal that it is written on.) In various ways, the EU contributed to the mess.
Yet the European Commission seems determined to avoid meaningful self-scrutiny. Maroš Šefčovič, a vice president of the Commission, last month addressed the institution’s in-house think-tank, the European Political Strategy Centre, at a seminar entitled the Energy Union and Climate Change Policy. Despite assuring the EPSC that “by bringing [together] people from across our institution and from the outside, we are sure to challenge ourselves, our own axioms and assumptions,” he then made no mention of Dieselgate — one of the most glaring cock-ups in EU energy and climate change policy in recent years.
The EPSC could initiate a discussion of what can be learnt from Dieselgate about the Commission’s procedures for inter-departmental consultation, for the handling of scientific opinion and evidence, for responding to unintended consequences, but has not done so. There were, I concede, structural changes made at the outset of the Juncker Commission to what was the Commission’s department for enterprise — now the department for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship, SMEs. Those changes ought to reduce the earlier tendency for that department to lobby on behalf of a particular industry, but they are no substitute for genuine self-scrutiny that ranges right across the Commission, including the secretariat-general and the college of commissioners.
Instead it is left to the European Parliament to set up a committee of inquiry, whose purpose, dynamics and politics are very different. As POLITICO Pro reported last week, Kathleen Van Brempt, the Belgian socialist MEP who chairs the committee, has been frustrated by the refusal of Verheugen to attend.
By refusing to undertake a thorough self-examination, the Commission calls into question other steps taken under the rubric of “better lawmaking.” What value the creation of a “regulatory scrutiny board” to which appointments were announced just on Wednesday? In the absence of an inquest on Dieselgate, it smacks of window-dressing. Again, what credence should we give to the Commission’s imminent decision on whether to renew marketing approval for glyphosate — a controversial (because possibly carcinogenic) herbicide?
That decision should be made taking into account scientific evidence, an assessment of risk and some fierce political lobbying — rather like those car-emissions decisions.
Just as importantly, the Commission has to examine how lobbying by member states affected the quality of lawmaking. From the outside, we have some idea of the extent to which the German government was acting on behalf of its carmakers — and I wrote at the time of the Volkswagen admissions about the long history of that alliance, but the Commission has to examine how the lobbying worked. Without such an assessment, it seems crazy to attempt a discussion of whether and how the lobbying register might be extended — as Timmermans is proposing — to the member states’ offices in Brussels, the permanent representations.
Discussion of a mandatory transparency register is premature. What matters at the moment is to take a long hard look at the many aspects of regulatory failure contained in Dieselgate. Some transparency on that score is a necessary first step.
Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.
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