Last-minute backtracking by Germany over a landmark European Union agreement to phase out fossil fuel car engines overshadowed a meeting of the 27 national leaders in Brussels on Thursday, raising concerns of stalling progress towards the continent’s green goals.
In an unusual move in recent weeks Germany refused to give the final sign-off to an agreement to phase out the internal combustion engine that had already been previously approved by the European Parliament and the 27 governments as a core pillar of the EU’s efforts to overhaul its economy to reach its Paris Agreement commitments.
As leaders arrived for the summit it became clear that Berlin’s 11th-hour qualms over the deal, which were driven by pressure within the coalition government of Olaf Scholz, had encouraged other capitals to start picking apart an agreement that had already been settled.
The leaders of major car-producing countries the Czech Republic and Slovakia said they would also raise the issue of rules to reduce car emissions at the summit, and push back against plans for new targets for the reduction of exhaust pollution.
“There’s a lot of disinformation about combustion engines,” Slovakia’s prime minister Eduard Heger told reporters, saying he would raise objections to a planned new emissions legislation called Euro 7, describing it as “problematic”.
Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni said European countries should beware of abandoning industries in which they had a competitive advantage, suggesting that committing to electric vehicles carried a risk given China’s dominance in manufacturing batteries. “Tying ourselves to technologies where foreign countries have the upper edge does not favour the competitiveness of our system,” Ms Meloni told reporters.
The German government has asked for an exemption to be belatedly added into the agreement to create a loophole for so-called e-fuels: synthetic fuels that are made with electricity, including from renewable sources. Critics warn that in effect this would allow cars with engines that can burn fossil fuels to be sold past an already-announced phase out date of 2035.
On arrival Mr Scholz played down the issue, saying that an agreement would soon be reached and that other countries agreed with Berlin’s stance.
But ahead of the summit diplomats expressed considerable frustration that Germany had backtracked. “Some countries feel they’ve sucked up a lot,” one diplomat said. “Other countries with a car industry or a car components industry ... were willing to go along. The industry has been given a signal too.”
Reopening the agreement was now putting “political pressure” on other leaders to join in, the diplomat added.
European Parliament president Roberta Metsola said legislation that had already passed through the parliament needed to be respected, and the credibility of the EU was at stake.
“If we are asked or tasked by our citizens to legislate in a specific area, to take decisions in a specific area, we need to be prepared to do that. And once we do that, then we need to deliver,” she said. “We cannot go back on deals because this is ultimately about trust between co-legislators and the credibility of the legislative process.”