European Presidency Dieselgate Skeleton in an Italian Closet

Italian politician Antonio Tajani may well become the next president of the European Parliament. Yet he is considered to be incompetent, ingratiating and has been accused of being complicit in the Dieselgate scandal.
Quelle: dpa
The next European President? Italian politician Antonio Tajani of the EPP group in the European Parliament.
(Source: dpa)

No question, this man knows how to tell an audience what they want to hear. When Antonio Tajani spoke before the European People's Party, the center-right Christian Democratic group in the European Parliament, last December, he raved about the glorious deeds of distinguished statesmen like Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle.

They were, coincidentally, also Christian Democrats. In addition, the Italian politician solemnly promised to put the parliamentary administrators in their place so that members of the European Parliament would be able to focus fully on their very, very important work. “Plain and simple, that was populism for parliamentarians,” recalls one of the people who was in the room at the time.

Representatives from the European People's Party were so taken with Mr. Tajani’s flattery, they promptly selected the 63-year-old member of Italy’s center-right political party, Forza Italia, to be their candidate for European Parliament president in the election for the position this coming Tuesday.

Since the EPP is the largest faction in the European Parliament, this makes him the favorite. Although another Italian, Gianni Pittella, is in the running for the Social Democrats and the eloquent Liberal, Guy Verhofstadt, is also standing, Mr. Tajani remains the favorite, partially because the chairman of the EPP group, Manfred Weber, a German, is backing him.

Mr. Weber even made public a 2014 document last week that has long been secret which revealed that the EPP and the Social Democrats had made a deal: The Social Democrat Martin Schulz would be elected president with help from the conservatives but half way through the legislative period, he would make room for a representative from the EPP to take over the office at the beginning of 2017. Which, in concrete terms, means Mr. Tajani.

It will be a tough act to follow. Mr. Schulz, is a man some have mocked for his obvious desire to show off but who – even his critics concede - has made the European Parliament more legitimate. The German Social Democrat is also deeply committed to Europe and, despite his own vanity, has stood up to populists and euroskeptics.

But what kind of man is this Mr. Tajani, the man most likely to be the next face of Europe?

Company representatives recall how he often cancelled meetings at the last minute. Only Mr. Tajani’s fellow Italians could count on him.

For one, he owes his political career to Silvio Berlusconi, of all people, the former Italian prime minister who was sentenced to three years for tax fraud and corruption and who introduced populism and buffoonery into global politics long before Donald Trump turned up. Mr. Tajani stands firmly by his side. “Silvio Berlusconi,” he insists, “is the only Italian leader who has any global standing, esteemed in Europe and the United States.”

But that’s not all. Mr. Tajani was once Italy’s European Commissioner, also thanks to Mr. Berlusconi, but only gained attention for doing nothing and for his bias; through criminal neglect, he was integral in enabling the VW emissions scandal.

As the European Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship, in 2012, Mr. Tajani was informed by an automotive supplier about the methods for manipulating emissions tests that would trigger the VW Dieselgate scandal just three years later. But he decided not to investigate the accusations. “He, along with the-then environmental commissioner, bear responsibility for that,” says Rebecca Harms, a German lawmaker with the Greens in the European Parliament.

This ignoble role in the emissions scandal was uncovered by Handelsblatt’s sister publication, WirtschaftsWoche, at the end of 2015. But it wasn’t until now, just days before the election, that the questionable methods the legal expert is using to disentangle himself from the scandal are becoming clear.

On November 26, 2015, Mr. Tajani posted a document on Twitter with the name and date of contact of the auto industry executive who had informed him about the emissions manipulations. Having served as the European Commissioner for Transport for a long time, Mr. Tajani must have known what he was doing. He was making it clear that the manager had gone to the authorities and blackened the reputation of his clients, the carmakers. That manager has good reason to worry he will never get another contract.

I was never informed or given any evidence about the use of defeat devices. Antonio Tajani, MEP

The manager was promptly badmouthed and criticized by colleagues from within the industry. He allegedly even received personal threats from VW staff. Desperate, he contacted Mr. Tajani’s Strasbourg office and asked Mr. Tajani’s staff  to delete his name, address, and telephone number from Twitter. The then-vice-president of the European Parliament responded with a brazen demand: The auto parts supplier should publish a press release stating that the report by WirtschaftsWoche on Mr. Tajani’s role in the emissions scandal was false. Mr. Tajani repeated this demand a number of times but each time the manager rejected the proposition.

And so Mr. Tajani’s Twitter attacks against the whistleblower, who had turned to the then-industry commissioner in confidence, are online to this day. “If a European parliamentarian publishes a written document, submitted in confidence, with the name and telephone number of the third party, without the consent of that person, it is a violation of European privacy law,” says Rolf Schwartmann, a law professor at the Technical University of Cologne. “How can a politician out an informant who has brought abuse to his attention?”

Mr. Tajani refused to comment on the latest accusations against him. Word has it in Brussels that Mr. Weber had wished for a different EPP candidate. In his capacity as chairman though, he can do nothing but defend Mr. Tajani.

Mr. Weber warns against pre-judging the candidates who have mostly been from Germany up until now. But even EPP members are worried about Mr. Tajani’s candidacy. That is partly because of Mr. Tajani’s ties to Mr. Berlusconi, for whom he served as spokesperson and because of his role in the VW scandal, but also because of his record as European Commissioner, first for transport and then for industry.

In these roles Mr. Tajani mostly produced hot air. His plan of action for the steel industry fell flat as did an initiative for increasing tourism. Company representatives recall how he often cancelled meetings at the last minute, even a meeting with the head of Daimler, Dieter Zetsche. Only Mr. Tajani’s fellow Italians could count on him. They usually got an appointment immediately.

That was the case with the Italian auto industry executive, who met with Mr. Tajani on July 4, 2012 in the commissioner's office in Strasbourg. The subject was manipulations by carmakers measuring emissions. That was how it is outlined in a briefing the manager sent the day before to Mr. Tajani’s office.

In the field of vehicle emissions, the note cautions, there is the practice of “cycle beating” – that is optimizing emission performance but only during the emissions test cycle while emissions from more typical driving conditions were much higher. In other words, cheating the tests. Further the note states that modern technology offers many ways to manipulate a test, for example, with the use of specialized software that recognizes when the car is first being tested. Only then does the car perform well on emissions. Later on the road, however, the emissions technology only works to a limited degree. The European Commission must send a clear message, the note said, that this kind of trickery will not be tolerated.

That letter and the ensuing discussion in Strasbourg were the earliest warnings of the manipulation that would later precipitate the VW scandal.

Following WirtschaftsWoche’s exposure of this, Mr. Tajani tweeted away in the best Trump manner: “Wiwo lying again already,” he wrote, using the publication's nickname, and added, as proof, the aforementioned note from the Italian informant. This refers “to tire pressure sensors, not VW.”

But just like Mr. Trump, Mr. Tajani plays fast and loose with the facts. The note had described the carmakers’ manipulations of emissions in over 300 words. He mentioned the subject of tire pressure sensors in just two sentences.  And did so simply as a “clear example” of the manipulation of tests.

What Mr. Tajani is hiding in his attempt to worm his way out of the affair, is that tire pressure is directly linked to emissions. Cars driving with lower tire pressure use more fuel. That is why the European Union carmakers ensure more leeway with legal limits on tire pressure sensors.

Additionally, in about every second accident caused by technical defects, flat tires are to blame. Tire pressure sensors can prevent such accidents. For safety reasons alone, the Italian whistleblower’s notes should have alarmed Mr. Tajani, then the industry commissioner.

It wasn’t until November 2016 that a test by the European environmental organization, Transport & Environment, revealed that Volkswagen and Fiat tire pressure sensors often only functioned when they are being tested. When tested in more everyday situations, they failed. It would seem that, along with the diesel scandal, there was a very similar scandal brewing about tire pressure. And Mr. Tajani knew about both of them back in 2012.

That didn’t stop the Forza Italia politician from playing innocent in front of the European Parliament Dieselgate inquiry. “I was never informed or given any evidence about the use of defeat devices,” he said on the record. Committee members were not buying it though. “I absolutely cannot understand why Tajani didn’t commission an investigation,” says Ismail Ertug, a German MEP and Social Democrat.

Can such a man, with these kinds of accusations against him, really become president of the European Parliament? Even Herbert Reul, chairman of the center-right German CDU-CSU bloc in the parliament, is no longer sure. He estimates Mr. Tajani’s chances at about 50 percent.

Of course there is still a chance for Mr. Tajani. It is possible that the votes of extremists and euroskeptics in the European Parliament, like Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage, could put the Italian into office. A president by their grace? And this year, of all years, when there are elections in the five largest euro-zone countries and those same populists and extremists are hoping for an increased share of the votes?

EPP parliamentary leader, Mr. Weber, stresses that his group won’t accept votes from radicals. But that’s a promise that is easily made. The voting is by secret ballot. So in the end, no one will ever know exactly who voted for Mr. Tajani.


Martin Seiwert writes for the German business magazine WirtschaftsWoche and this story originally appeared on its website. Silke Wettach is a European Union correspondent for WirtschaftsWoche in Brussels. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]