Whilst the biggest political fight of the moment in Congress concerning the toxic bank bail-out continues to make headlines, another bitter political fight is coming to a head, but this one is in Brussels.
On the one side are progressive MEPs, and members of the European Commission coupled with environmental groups and scientists who are trying to make the EU’s car industry more sustainable and fuel efficient.
On the other side stand the huge, powerful car lobby, typified by Germans where one in three people own a top-end car and one in seven manufacturing jobs are in the industry. The political and economic muscle of the industry is legendary, and the Germans can count Angela Merkel amongst their close supporters. It is an industry that is used to getting its own way. It certainly has done so for the last decade or so in delaying regulatory action on climate and fuel efficiency.
But not yesterday. In an unexpected move, the EU’s influential Environment committee voted by a sweeping majority to force car manufacturers to reduce CO2 emissions of new vehicles by 2012 and to impose strict fines on those that fail to do so.
Under the terms approved by the committee, new cars will not be permitted to emit more than 130 grammes of CO2 per kilometre starting in 2012 – a 24 per cent reduction from current averages of 158g/km. The limit will fall to 95g by 2020, subject to a review in 2014.
It had been widely expected that the committee would allow the industry at least until 2015 to comply. In adopting 2012, the MEPs effectively rejected a Franco-German pact hatched by Merkel and France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in June.
Understandably the car industry was furious. Ivan Hodac, general secretary of Acea, the most powerful lobby group at the EU, argued that the “committee doesn’t care whether this industry stays or doesn’t stay in Europe”. It had “voted on something we have said we cannot comply with”.
“The lobby from the car industry lost,” said Chris Davies, MEP, who is the Liberal Democrats’ environment spokesman. “MEPs today stood up for tougher measures to combat global warming and sent a strong message to corporate lobbyists to back off. A good day for democracy.”
The fight is not over yet though. The car industry will be licking its wounds. The deal has yet to be agreed by the commission, the whole parliament and EU governments themselves, and so you can expect an intense lobbying effort by the Germans. It won’t just be arms that are twisted.