Not long ago, in April this year, the car manufacturer VW found its way on the front pages of every German-speaking newspaper. The two most influential people in the enterprise, Ferdinand Piëch and Martin Winterkorn, were fighting for power. In retrospect, this episode seems to have been merely a mild foreshock. Now the world knows that VW cheated on a scale that still baffles the public, and everybody is in deep trouble: The VW Group because their reputation is irreparably damaged, the German government because they intended to present themselves as a shining moral and environmental role model, and the European Institutions because – yet again – they are not feared, but rather controlled by the big players.
Why is VW’s reputation that central? With its 600.000 workers, VW is not only a huge German employer, but it helps define the industrial location that is Germany. The automotive industry is a cornerstone of the former Exportweltmeister. To understand the implications of this scandal, one has to look at the ties between VW and the State. Lower Saxony owns 20% of VW. The German government is traditionally well informed about the strategy pursued by Wolfsburg. Over the last few days, it became evident that Berlin was aware of the illegal software for a while (The UK government admitted to that as well, though rather vaguely).
The timing for these revelations is the worst imaginable. With the never-ending austerity debate that is Greece, the refugee crisis and an inner-state and even inner-party opposition that is not to be underestimated, Merkel is in need of as much moral high ground as she can possibly hold on to. The VW scandal and the role of the government in it does not lend credibility to her own environmental policy, the Energiewende, either.
Apart from Berlin, the last few weeks are yet more evidence of the entanglement in Brussels: The European Institutions are controlled neither by the Parliament nor by the Commission: rather, they are run by the 184 lobbyists of the car industry. This may not come as a surprise, but it explains why it is – yet again – the US who act. Called into action by the International Council on Clean Transport and the NGO Transport & Environment, the US seized the opportunity to look into one of the biggest rivals of their domestic manufacturers. The EU on the other hand has shown that while it is clear that the Commission knew about illegal devices, it was unable to provide legislation scaring enough.
This entanglement of influential companies and national governments is harmful to the democratic idea. It suggests that both the Member States and the EU as a whole are ruled by someone who was not elected, rather like in House of Cards really.
This does not weaken in any way the blatant truth that VW is very much the culprit here. A weak Commission and a friendly government may provide a window of opportunity, but the decision of trespassing the law to such a grave extent is not justifiable in any way. VW behaved in an arrogant and greedy way. For two months, they could call themselves the biggest car manufacturer in the world. Pride comes before the fall. Therefore, it is even more important who controls this fate of the stumbling giant. Up to now, it has been Washington. Now it is time for Brussels to shift into gear as well.
Image credit: William