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Germany’s Free Democrats take von der Leyen’s clean car plan hostage


BRUSSELS — With help from Italy, Germany’s liberal Free Democrats have turned what should have been a routine rubber-stamping of EU clean car legislation into a nail-biter that could upend the bloc’s green transport plans.

Instead of an uncontroversial final approval this month of the EU’s plan to end the sale of new combustion engine cars and vans by 2035, it’s now the subject of talks at the highest political level as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen heads to Germany on Sunday.

Germany and Italy are leading the last-ditch resistance to the 2035 phaseout date, and with backing from Poland and Bulgaria, they could form a blocking minority.

“Our goal is to allow new cars with internal combustion engines to be registered after 2035,” Germany’s Porsche-driving Finance Minister Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democrats (FDP), said Thursday.

Rejecting legislation at this point — after it’s been negotiated with Parliament and approved by both MEPs and the Council — is exceedingly rare, but the automotive industry has spent decades reaping profits from combustion engines built in both Germany and Italy, and some politicians are eager to make the end of the gas guzzler a political red line.

“Usually it’s paper pushing at this stage, but this has become something else,” said a Council official briefed on the file.

Von der Leyen’s visit to the German government’s Meseberg palace retreat to discuss economic issues was announced Wednesday and, according to a German government official briefed on the discussions, will include an effort to save the car legislation from the scrap heap.

The last-minute hurdle is a result of fierce political resistance to the Commission’s 2035 car plans by some politicians in Berlin and Rome.

Germany’s Lindner and Transport Minister Volker Wissing, a fellow FDP member, are demanding that the Commission allow a loophole for cars powered by e-fuels — synthetic fuels made from renewable energy and captured CO2 that have the same properties as fossil fuels. Their backers say such fuels are green and would allow carmakers to continue producing conventional combustion engine vehicles rather than switching to batteries — crucial for car powers like Germany and Italy.

However, green groups are skeptical both of the costs and of the environmental footprint of e-fuels. The EU’s plans don’t allow for them, as they mandate that new cars and vans have zero tailpipe emissions after 2035.

Germany did manage to slip a mention of e-fuels into June’s Council conclusions, but they’re in a non-binding addition and not in the main text. 

The FDP wants that reference beefed up and now Lindner is going for broke — which is creating tensions with the Greens, who are also part of the German coalition government.

Italy is firmly behind him, with its populist Transport Minister Matteo Salvini making stopping the 2035 zero emissions car mandate a key part of his own political agenda. He argues the law would hand the bloc’s car market to electric vehicle leader China and cost “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has also vowed to “forcefully” oppose the car ban plans, arguing they’re “deeply damaging to our manufacturing sector.” Her rejection has been echoed by former Commission President Romano Prodi, underlying the broad political support in Italy for a rethink.

Poland and Bulgaria are also vocally against the plan, and the four countries represent around 42 percent of the EU population — easily over the 35 percent threshold needed to block legislation.

“A qualified majority would thus be prevented and the combustion engine phaseout rejected,” German Greens MEP Michael Bloss said.

Italy’s Industry Minister Adolfo Urso said Thursday that Italy’s opposition to the 2035 reform had pushed other countries to “start reflecting.”

“Ours has been a warning sign to the whole of Europe to not take anything for granted,” he said.

Berlin vs Brussels

In order to smooth over cracks in Germany’s coalition government and secure last year’s deal on the draft 2035 law, the Commission had said it would look at ways to incorporate a technical carve out for e-fuels.

However, Frans Timmermans, the EU executive’s Green Deal chief, also insisted that it’s up to the College of Commissioners to assess “whether a proposal is needed,” Commission spokesperson Stefan De Keersmaecker said this week.

That has the FDP feeling cheated.

“We request a legal regulation from the European Commission, the European Commission promises it to us, then doesn’t do it, and is completely surprised that we don’t simply acquiesce,” Wissing said Wednesday.

The German official said the FDP wants to extract a public commitment to e-fuels from von der Leyen that would allow the party to claim a domestic policy win following a stinging result in local elections last month.

The German Greens, who control the environment ministry running the file, are aghast.

Among EU countries pushing for tougher efforts on climate change, the threat to the car legislation has created “a fear that countries like Poland start using the same tactics. That the current German behavior legitimates attacks on other climate files,” said a diplomat from a climate-ambitious country.

Julia Poliscanova, with green NGO Transport & Environment, said: “This is an internal FDP issue, which is holding the EU’s entire climate agenda hostage. At stake now is Germany’s credibility: They voted on this deal in good faith in November last year. Nothing has changed.”

Gabriel Rinaldi, Gregorio Sorgi, Louis Westendarp, Karl Matthiesen, Hans von der Burchard, Zia Weise and Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.

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