The European Commission is a strange animal. It can be a ferocious tiger, in tackling infringements of EU law by less powerful nations, and a docile pussycat, when facing down big business.
From pronouncements on budgets, taxes, water charges, state aid and coffee cups, Ireland has endured the wrath, on many occasions, of the EU’s executive arm.
In 2016, we were warned that water charges had to stay and, last October, it was the Commission that took Ireland to the European Court of Justice for failing to recover €13bn in taxes from Apple.
November’s budget could not be implemented until the Commission signed off on it, but not before giving a thumbs-down to plans to scrap the universal social charge.
Last month, we were warned about a ban to be introduced on single-use plastics, like coffee cups, in light of China’s decision not to take any more of our plastic waste.
Given all of that, one would imagine that Volkswagen would be in for something of a hiding from the commission, after the German car giant tried to keep secret the results of a diesel-emissions test, on monkeys and on human volunteers, commissioned by a car industry-financed research institute.
This follows the notorious 2015 ‘Dieselgate’ scandal when Volkswagen admitted that it had fitted out millions of cars with software that enabled it to cheat pollution tests.
The response to the experiments by the European Commission wasn’t even a slap on the wrist for Volkswagen — more like a finger-wagging exercise by Elzbieta Bienkowska, the Commissioner for Industry.
Speaking at the European Parliament on Tuesday, she urged car-makers to “behave more ethically” and responsibly, adding that the EU Commission was “shocked” by news of the tests.
Not shocked enough, though, to do anything other than whinge about it.
Neither did the commission do anything more than name and shame Volkswagen over Dieselgate. VW rigged 11m of its diesel-engine cars to cheat on emissions by shutting off pollution controls, except when the cars were being tested; 8.5m of those cars were sold in Europe.
While the US authorities fined the company $30bn and charged eight VW executives with fraud, the commission stood by while the company refused to offer any compensation to its European customers.
Contrast this with the EC’s bullying insistence that Irish water charges be implemented. It stated in May, 2016, that, “in accordance with the polluter-pays principle, the Commission considers that the flexibility afforded to member states… would not apply”.
Where was the polluter-pays principle during Dieselgate, and where is the principle of humane treatment of people and animals now?
The European Commission hasn’t just lost its teeth; it has lost its credibility.