* EU regulators accuse some countries of inaction
* Seven countries face legal cases
* Germany, Britain reject criticism
* European car industry: tmsnrt.rs/2fyO3za
(Repeats to add link to GRAPHIC. Adds UK government reaction)
By Alissa de Carbonnel
BRUSSELS, Dec 8 The European Union began legal
action on Thursday against Germany, Britain and five other
member states for failing to police emissions test cheating by
carmakers after the Volkswagen diesel scandal.
Amid mounting frustration in Brussels over what EU officials
see as governments colluding with the powerful car industry, the
European Commission is wielding its biggest available stick in
an attempt to force nations to clamp down on diesel cars spewing
health-harming nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution.
German officials - who say EU law is poorly framed - had
expected Brussels to stop short of confronting the EU's leading
power and by far its biggest car manufacturer, at a time when
the unity of the bloc is being challenged by eurosceptics and
Britain's vote to leave.
Thursday's action is a sign that the EU executive, under
pressure from the European Parliament, is keen to prove its
worth to voters.
Germany, Britain, Spain and Luxembourg stand accused of
failing to impose the kind of penalties Volkswagen has faced in
the United States over its use of illegal "defeat device"
software to mask real-world NOx emissions blamed for respiratory
illnesses and early deaths.
Reacting to the announcement, German Transport Minister
Alexander Dobrindt said: "Germany is the only European country
to have implemented a comprehensive list of measures to prevent
unauthorised use of defeat devices."
Britain enacted legislation to tackle emissions test
manipulations in 2009, a spokesman for its transport ministry
said. "The UK will be responding in the strongest possible terms
(to the EU action)," he added.
Officials from Spain and Luxembourg could not be reached for
The Commission also accuses Berlin and London of refusing to
share the details of suspicious findings revealed by national
investigations into the "dieselgate" scandal - without which it
cannot carry out a supervisory role.
"This goes far beyond Volkswagen," said an EU source, adding
that officials had more cases planned in a push to force cars
spewing up to five times legal NOx limits off the road.
Thursday's notice is the first step in what is known as
infringement procedures, allowing the EU to ensure the bloc's 28
nations abide by agreed EU-wide regulations. Member states have
two months to respond.
If they fail to do so convincingly, the EU may take them to
the EU court in Luxembourg.
In a system the Commission is now seeking to overhaul,
national watchdogs approve new cars and alone have the power to
police manufacturers - though once approved in one country,
vehicles can be sold across the bloc.
Highlighting the system's shortcomings, the Commission said
another three countries - the Czech Republic, Lithuania and
Greece - do not have provisions in national law allowing for
fines against carmakers in case of breaches.
European consumer lobby BEUC hailed the cases, saying not
enough had been done to protect EU citizens - a year since the
United States caught VW cheating and went on to win compensation
for its consumers. "It is a strong rebuke of Germany and other
countries' inaction," said BEUC head Monique Goyens.
But the Commission faces a tough fight. Its proposal for a
shake-up of rules on new car approvals has been watered down by
member states, documents seen by Reuters show.
So far, despite probes revealing that several carmakers use
questionable techniques resulting in lower emissions during
regulatory tests, no country has issued heavy penalties.
"All of them are still protecting their national interest,"
said Bas Eickhout, a Green member of the European Parliament.
Defeat devices have been illegal under EU law since 2007.
But EU carmakers - who employ some 12 million people in the bloc
- say they are not doing anything wrong because there is an
exemption allowing them to turn off emission control systems
when necessary for safety or to protect engines.
Germany has said the widely exploited loophole is the result
of poorly framed EU law. However, it has asked the Commission to
mediate in its dispute with Fiat Chrysler, accused in Germany of
using an illegal device to scale back emission controls after 22
minutes - just longer than official tests.
Europe's Industry Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska has
repeatedly said the letter of EU law is clear and called on
member states to respect its spirit.
(Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Additional reporting Jan
Schwartz in Hamburg and Costas Pitas in London; Editing by Mark
Potter and Laurence Frost)