Car lobby’s presence felt in Brussels corridors of power

The car industry lobby is second only in size to the financial industry in lobbying the EU institutions, according to the transparency register. The sector’s influence on EU legislation for car emissions limits and testing has come into sharp focus since Volkswagen’s cheating was uncovered in the US yet went undetected in tests in Europe where diesel cars account for more than one in two cars sold.

Volkswagen itself is the biggest player in the Brussels corridors of power with 43 registered lobbyists, a report compiled by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) shows. However, the official list is considered a low estimate and the actual number of representatives is impossible to determine.

German carmakers Daimler and BMW employ 14 and 8 registered lobbyists respectively, and German companies are considered the biggest players with combined spending on EU lobbying activities of €10.7 million out of a car industry total of €18 million in 2014. CEO said that both spending and the number of lobbyists employed have massively increased since 2010.

Lobbying is perfectly legal and thousands of lobbyists operate under the radar in Brussels, not officially registered to a particular interest group. The lobbyists engage with the European Commission at all levels, from commissioners down to the estimated 700 expert groups that guide EU policy making.

The process of weakening regulations goes through many stages, explained T&E director Jos Dings. ‘It all starts very early,’ he said. ‘The Commission starts a strategy process, say on reducing transport greenhouse gas emissions. This is where the lobbying starts, long before there is any regulation. At first auto lobbyists push for the Commission to do nothing or only act on others like fuel or drivers. But if the Commission has the courage to regulate the carmakers themselves, the next stage comes – the strategy is to delay and weaken.’

In the mid-1990s carmakers successfully lobbied against binding emissions targets, instead proposing a voluntary, industry-led scheme. The industry did not meet its voluntary target, but it was successful in delaying binding targets for a decade.

In 2008, the Commission finally regulated car CO2 emissions but the targets were delayed by three years and raised by 10g/km with emissions cuts supposedly delivered by biofuels instead. A few years later the lobbyists persuaded the EU’s industry commissioner from Germany, Günter Verheugen, to weaken the regulation through double counting electric cars and then recruited German chancellor Angela Merkel lobby on its behalf to further delay the target for 2021.

Having weakened the regulations, now carmakers’ final strategy is to circumvent the rules entirely by abusing the testing rules. In the case of CO2, manipulating tests has enabled them to deliver less than half the emissions reductions achieved in official laboratory tests on the road. This has saved them an estimated €7 billion by not having to fit technology to cars – but it has cost drivers five times this amount in higher fuel bills.

Jos Dings added: ‘The Better Regulation initiative by the Commission should be spending as much time looking at the systematic abuse of environmental regulations by business as it does finding ways to save business money.’

At present Volkswagen, Daimler and the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA) are represented on the Working Group on Motor Vehicles. The three are joined by BMW and the German car trade association VDA on the iMobility Forum. ACEA also sits on the review of EU air policy expert group.

Civil society and other stakeholders also participate in expert groups, but their influence is constrained by the available resources. Jos Dings said: ‘We have four people who have to follow the entire automotive file. We have to be selective, in quite a few we are not represented at all. In these there is no counter to the industry allowing loopholes to be introduced into implementing rules.’