When the European Parliament committee investigating the Volkswagen "Dieselgate" affair met for the first time on Wednesday, Martin Schulz was likely rubbing his hands in satisfaction.
One reason is that the European Parliament president's Social Democrats and members of the Greens had pushed through the inquiry committee against the will of the main center-right parliamentary group.
They want to probe how Volkswagen could have cheated the testing system for emissions without it ever being picked up by the European Commission.
The other reason is that Mr. Schulz's own political career could profit.
That is because one of his potential rivals in his battle for a third term as European Parliament president, Antonio Tajani, is slated to testify in front of the 45-member committee and it could be damaging for him. Mr. Tajani is an Italian politician, a current vice president of the European Parliament and a former European Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship.
The role of the European Commissioner and the officials of the members states must now be examined very closely. Ismael Ertug, Member, Investigation committee
“The role of the European Commissioner and the officials of the members states must now be examined very closely,” said Ismael Ertug during the first session of the new committee. Mr. Ertug, a German MEP for the Social Democrats, is also a member of the Committee for Transport and Tourism.
Traditionally, the two major political camps in the European Parliament take turns in the office of president. The changeover between the center-right European People’s Party and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats usually takes place midway through a legislative period.
However, it is an open secret in Brussels that Mr. Schulz would like to continue as president.
As things stand today, Mr. Schulz should step down from office at the beginning of 2017. Until now, Mr. Tajani, a member of the center-right European People’s Party, which isn’t exactly bursting to the brim with top personnel, was considered a promising candidate to succeed Mr. Schulz.
But Mr. Tajani’s chances are dwindling. Critics accuse the former commissioner of not having been strongly enough committed in the past to ensuring the tests for car emissions were being designed to take accurate readings.
According to its mandate, the inquiry committee is now supposed to clarify within the next 12 months whether the Brussels authorities and the European Union’s member states already had indications years ago that software for falsifying the results of emissions tests were being used and whether or why they stood by and did nothing. Conservatives regard the committee as a tool to discredit Mr. Tajani.
He felt compelled to counter the accusation that he, as commissioner, had knowledge of the emissions manipulations at VW in 2012 and 2013 in an internal letter to the other members of the European People’s Party. One of his staffers recently told Handelsblatt that Mr. Tajani didn’t allow the matter to slide. On the contrary, he called attention to possible loopholes in the monitoring of “products of the automobile industry” in his letters to the governments of member states and worked toward improvements.
In fact, in a letter to Philipp Rösler, the German Federal Minister of Economics and Technology at the time, Mr. Tajani also didn’t rule out cheating. A July 2012 letter Handelsblatt has obtained says improved market surveillance must ensure “that the member states have the necessary structures and means at their disposal within their territory and that they take the corrective measures when products either do not meet the standards of a E.U. type approval or … in the event of falsifications and manipulations.”
With or without Mr. Tajani, the European People’s Party’s inclination to back yet another extension of Mr. Schulz’s tenure in office is approaching zero. Instead they could search for an alternative. For example, the French MEP, Alain Lamassoure, who is considered, at least in his own parliamentary group, to be somewhat presidential.
Thomas Ludwig is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels. To contact the author: [email protected]