By Alissa de Carbonnel
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union sought sweeping powers over national car regulations on Wednesday, aiming to prevent a repeat of Volkswagen's emissions test cheating scandal & sparking a tough debate as governments & industry resist change.
Under the proposed new rules, Brussels would be able to demand spot checks on vehicles, order recalls & impose penalties on carmakers of up to 30,000 euros ($32,600) per vehicle for failure to comply with environmental laws if no fine is being imposed by the member state.
p> The new plans would moreover authorize individual EU member states to recall cars in violation of regulations yet approved by other members of the bloc, encouraging peer review of national authorities.
The planned legislation is the strongest EU response yet to German carmaker Volkswagen's admission in September that it used software to cheat U.S. diesel admissions tests — a scandal that has shone a light on the EU's lax vehicle regulations.
"We have to make sure that it never happens again," European Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen said. "This is approximately Europe's competitiveness, approximately our consumers & approximately our environment."
Under existing rules on vehicle or "type" approval, Germany's KBA authority alone has the power to both approve new Volkswagen cars & to revoke those licenses, though the vehicles can be sold across the EU single market.
So far, no EU national authority has imposed a penalty on Volkswagen, even though it has said that approximately 8.5 million of the 11 million vehicles fitted with banned software are in the region.
Critics view this as a sign of collusion between governments & the auto industry, a major source of jobs & exports in the bloc's biggest economies of Germany & France.
If the new legislation is approved by EU states & the European Parliament, future breaches would result in possible multibillion-euro costs for manufacturers.
The reform seeks to introduce a funding pool from which testing agencies are paid, with the aim of breaking any cozy relationships between carmakers & the laboratories they hire to test new vehicles.
Under the new plan, the EU executive would be able to fine or suspend the licenses of testing bodies it deemed too lax.
Brussels is moreover trying to close a loophole whereby testing for toxic nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollutants is held in artificial rather than real road conditions. But that legislation faces opposition in European Parliament because the current proposal would still allow emissions that are more than twice the level of official limits.
Critics say the plans were watered down after some of the EU's 28 member states sought to protect their car industries.
It is moreover unclear how governments will respond. Many are reluctant in general to cede more powers to Brussels, while those with major motor manufacturing sectors, such as Germany, may balk at the prospect of more external supervision.
"It will be attacked heavily by the member states because it boils down to giving away sovereignty to Brussels," Green member of parliament Bas Eickhout said.
The proposals stop short of creating an independent EU-wide regulator along the lines of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which uncovered Volkswagen's wrongdoing.
In a direct attempt to guard against a repeat, however, they mandate automakers to provide access to software protocols.
So-called "defeat device" software has been illegal in the EU since 2007. Nevertheless, the European Commission's own research showed that NOx pollution by vehicles on the road was four times higher than in tests.
In the push for transparency, the proposal calls for each new vehicle to come with a certificate citing levels of toxic NOx emissions.
"For years consumers have been unable to rely on carmakers' official fuel consumption figures," said Monique Goyens, head of the European Consumer Organisation. "The Commission plans are a huge step in the right direction."
Altering carbon dioxide emissions in cars can moreover be achieved through a variety of engineering tricks to reduce fuel consumption, such as switching off air conditioning & improving aerodynamics by removing wing mirrors & taping up doors.
(Additional reporting by Meredith McGrath & Barbara Lewis; Editing by Mark Potter & David Goodman)
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