Legal action looms over governments' failure to get behind EU's electric-vehicle push

31 May 2017 9:33am

25 May 2017. By Laurel Henning.

When it broke in 2015, it was assumed that the Volkswagen diesel-gate emissions scandal would be the gamechanger that would prompt European governments to get behind electric cars.

The reasoning was that the German manufacturer's use of software to downplay the amount of harmful pollutants spewed out of its cars had made a mockery of the EU's commitments to reduce emissions. Angry governments would respond by embracing a technology that could make up for lost time.

But two years down the track, the assumption that policymakers would underwrite a move away from diesel toward electric cars appears to have been overly optimistic.

Almost half of EU national governments are delaying plans to build networks to charge electric vehicles — the equivalent of gasoline stations now on many city corners. The delay means that efforts to enact EU legislation to make electric cars feasible are suffering a setback.

In Germany, where the emissions scandal began, the government had pledged to put more than one million electric cars on the road by 2020. But Chancellor Angela Merkel said recently the country will miss those targets.

And until national governments meet their commitments, electric cars won't be a viable alternative.

This lack of enthusiasm is leading EU officials to consider legal action against national capitals to speed up their efforts and whether to revise EU laws.

The dilemma over how to tackle the policy problem comes to a head next week, with the European Commission set to publish the first batch of proposals to revise laws governing the bloc's transport industry — including measures to curb emissions.

The commission has to decide whether governments or manufacturers are at fault for the lack of progress on building electric-car infrastructure and who should foot the bill to get customers behind the wheel of electric automobiles across the EU.

The car industry argues that a transition to low-carbon transport isn't solely its responsibility. National governments say that even if they pay the multimillion-euro bill to get charging stations in place, carmakers must produce vehicles to feed the market.

In short: The chicken-and-egg crisis that has hampered the EU's move to electric vehicles is rearing its head again.

Alternative fuel strategy

It's been four years since the commission proposed an 8 billion euro ($9 billion) strategy aimed at boosting the sale of electric vehicles in the bloc.

The legally binding strategy set targets for EU countries to build 795,000 new "fueling" stations for electric cars by 2020. In negotiations between the European Parliament and EU governments, those binding targets were thrown out.

What remained was a requirement for governments to submit their own national targets and plans for the charging networks by the end of last year. Despite that deadline, just over half of capitals have put forward plans to build such networks.

That puts capitals at risk of legal action. When governments fail to adhere to EU law, the commission can start infringement procedures. Beginning with requests for information and written warnings, these can escalate into cases before the EU's courts in Luxembourg and the imposition of fines.

MLex understands that the commission is now preparing infringement procedures against the countries that have failed to submit reports. This group includes Ireland, Poland and the UK.

The commission is expected to take stock of its now four-year-old strategy in 2017. The EU's executive arm will publish an assessment of national plans and consider revising the legally binding measures.

But there will be no respite for reluctant governments: Any changes would have to introduce tougher measures. One policy initiative under consideration by the commission is a quota for carmakers to have to bring electric cars to market in the bloc.

Industry goals

As China garners more attention in global climate policymaking, it's no surprise that the idea for an industry quota to boost electric-car sales comes from the global superpower.

Despite Chinese plans to ease its quota, the measure gained support from German environment minister Barbara Hendricks last year — a move that angered members of the car industry.

Industry opposition to quotas for manufacturing is simple: carmakers say it's hard to know now where Europe's market will be, or how it will look, in 2025 — a suggested date for a quota from environmental groups.

Green lobby Transport and Environment is calling for a mandate for carmakers to ensure that 15 percent of the automobiles they bring to market in 2025 are electric.

Carmakers refute that the responsibility to get drivers behind the wheel of electric cars lies solely with them. They argue that there should be a commitment from governments to provide charging networks, and financial incentives such as tax breaks for drivers.

There's no question that electric cars will need to play a big role in Europe's transport future, particularly in cities. But with so much confusion about who should lead the effort, it's little wonder the EU is stalling.