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How A Franco-German Spat Over Mercedes Sheds Doubt On EU's Most Basic Rules

Berlin-based Die Welt is not taking lightly a recent EU directive that backed French bans on imports of new models of German-built Mercedes.

Mercedes SLS outside Le Bristol Hotel in Paris
Mercedes SLS outside Le Bristol Hotel in Paris
Florian Eder

BERLIN - So European Commissioner for Industry and Entrepreneurship Antonio Tajani has sided with France in its spat with Germany over the air-conditioning coolant used in some new models of Mercedes.

The issue is ostensibly one of environmental concern vs. safety, and the decision means that the cars are thus banned from import into France.

Here's the bottom line: with the blessing of the EU, certain models are not presently approved for sale in France so new Mercedes cannot be delivered to French customers of the Stuttgart manufacturer Daimler.

In a press statement, Tajani said that nothing less than the functioning of the EU’s single market was at stake here – that "concrete and urgent solutions” were needed “to re-establish conformity” in the EU's internal market. The decision, however, could result in exactly the opposite.

The consequences of the decision are far-reaching since they involve a very basic principle. "In the EU single market, both manufacturers and customers have to be able to depend on the same game rules, where national approval processes are recognized all over the EU," says Andreas Schwab, a single market expert and European member of Parliament from Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

When a product, in this case a car, gets valid approval in a member state, then that approval is valid in all 28 states. That concept was effectively killed and buried last Tuesday evening by Tajani, who is Vice-President of the Commission. Since the beginning of July, France has been refusing approval for Mercedes A-class, B-class and SL cars assembled after June 12, 2013 -- at first by simply not processing paper work and now through active refusal to approve them.

The official reason for the refusal is that the coolant Daimler is using in new vehicles does not conform to EU rules. According to Tajani, the R134a coolant has "significantly higher air pollution potential."

And if Italy follows suit?

The way French officials moved on this could well be in accordance with EU law, as they invoked Article 29 of the law on approvals of new models, which allows a ban on vehicles approved elsewhere for six months if they are deemed to present a safety, environmental or public health risk.

“Article 29 of the Framework Directive provides for the possibility for Member States to adopt temporary safeguard measures, if some conditions are met and a specific procedure is followed. If this procedure is triggered, the Commission may consider the French initiative within this framework,” read a statement issued by Tajani on Tuesday.

But according to Die Welt’s sources, France has yet to officially register its Daimler boycott with Brussels.

Daimler, however, is convinced that the law is on its side and that it has valid reasons not to use the EU-approved coolant, R1234yf. The German company argues that while it does meet EU clean air criteria, the substance poses greater safety risks, as it more easily caught fire in crash tests.

According to Tajani, Daimler didn’t present enough evidence of this, although the evidence it did provide was enough for the German Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA) that approved the vehicles.

"The Commission statements don’t change our situation. Our cars have a valid, European-wide permit. Nothing should stand in the way of their being registered," a Daimler spokesperson said.

MP Schwab was on the counter-offensive last week already. "Dear Mr. Vice-President, caro Antonio," his letter to Tajani – of which Die Welt has a copy – begins. The letter goes on to say that it is legally questionable that valid type-approval could quite simply be swept aside. "For this reason I would be most grateful if you would check that this course of action conforms to single market regulations."

EU government officials are due to discuss the coolant dispute at a meeting in Brussels. Meanwhile, according to Die Welt’s sources, Italy also intends to block certain Daimler cars on its market in what boils down to a Brussels-approved model to stimulate national economies. Not surprisingly, the vehicles that Italy will block are mainly compact models that compete most closely with those of Italian manufacturers.

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