BRUSSELS — Olaf Scholz arrived Thursday in Brussels proclaiming the EU had made a “promise” and must keep it.
Hours later, the EU clapped back, essentially saying the German chancellor was lying.
That was how, in half a day, Germany’s behind-the-scenes tussle over the EU’s plan to ban traditional cars became a public war of words — overshadowing an EU leaders’ summit in the process.
The gathering was meant to focus on many things — the economy, trade, Ukraine — but not cars. Nevertheless, the future of the traditional combustion engine car dominated the conversation on Day 1. Leaders were pestered about it on the way in. And Germany and the European Commission were quickly trading barbs.
The fight, in a nutshell, is this: Germany wants to keep selling some traditional combustion-engine vehicles after 2035, the date the EU has set for their extermination, as long as those cars run on synthetic fuels, or e-fuels — which are, in theory, carbon neutral.
The EU, however, has essentially already finalized its plans — which have widespread buy-in from across the bloc — and isn’t keen to make last-minute changes.
Scholz stood firm Thursday morning. The European Commission, he said, must deliver on a “promise made long ago” to examine the synthetic fuels loophole.
The EU’s executive struck back swiftly: The prospect of the Commission making a bespoke tweak to otherwise agreed legislation just to pacify the Germans before the final rubber stamp approval was “never in question,” one official said on condition of anonymity. In other words: There was no such “promise” as Scholz claimed, according to the Commission.
The clash of words came as the German government sent a letter to the Commission on Thursday, responding to a previous offer by the EU executive to find a compromise. The fresh exchange of letters between Berlin and Brussels has raised hopes that a solution to the standoff could still be achieved within the coming days.
Germany, Europe’s largest carmaker and the cradle of the combustion engine, earlier this month held up the car law, just as it was set to take effect, in order to force through a loophole for e-fuels. That move, however, has called into question the EU’s ability to meet its broader climate targets.
“If one member state can do it, what will stop the next?” Latvia’s Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš said. “This is not a direction we need to go in. The entire architecture of decision-making would fall apart if we all did that.”
The European Parliament is also watching closely, given it had twice rejected e-fuels as a viable inclusion.
“We cannot go back on deals because this is ultimately about trust between co-legislators and the credibility of the legislative process,” the Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola said on the sidelines of the summit, days after sending a letter to EU capitals arguing that the 2035 target should stand.
Yet while many EU leaders similarly grumbled and eye-rolled at Germany’s behavior on Thursday, others showed Berlin was not alone.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni warned that banning the sale of combustion-engine cars by 2035 would leave the EU entirely reliant on electric vehicles — a technology China currently dominates as a major producer of battery cells worldwide.
“There are some technologies in which Italy and Europe have the upper edge,” Meloni said of the auto industry. “Tying ourselves to technologies where foreign countries have the upper edge does not favor the competitiveness of our system.”
Some even said they wanted to bring up the topic directly during the high-level meeting.
While the issue wasn’t on the formal agenda for leaders during their meeting, it did come up during discussions.
The leaders of major car-making countries, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, said they were planning to raise auto emissions during the summit. That would widen the cars debate beyond the combustion engine to also include a nascent — and controversial — EU plan to broadly reduce all toxic exhaust pollutants, dubbed Euro 7.
“There’s a lot of disinformation about combustion engines,” said Eduard Heger, Slovakia’s prime minister, adding that he “definitely” wants to talk to Scholz about automotive rules. “It is the Euro 7 that is the problematic norm. I want to use this opportunity to talk to my partners on the Euro 7 problem.”
That threatens to further derail the conversation over the 2035 combustion engine ban — a completed proposal — by twinning it with Euro 7, which is still in the early stages of development.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said the plan was to create a “strong” group of countries to push for Euro 7 changes, starting at this week’s summit. Prague is also aligned with the German government in wanting to tweak the 2035 plans.
The chief defender of the 2035 deal, French President Emmanuel Macron, arrived late to the summit and swerved media on his way in. In advance, his team had promised to “fight” to maintain the agreement on a fixed zero-emissions mandate, which was brokered under the French government’s presidency of the Council of the EU.