In Brussels, the matter seemed as good as decided: The year 2034 should be the last in which cars with combustion engines may still be sold. After that, there will be only one form of drive on European roads, at least for new cars: the electric motor. But this goal seems to be in danger since this week, because the FDP, above all Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing, wants to stop the decision literally at the last minute.

Corinna Budras

Business correspondent in Berlin.

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Werner Mussler

Economic correspondent in Brussels.

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Wissing insists that the EU Commission opens a back door that prevents the complete "combustion engine phase-out". For this, she must submit a proposal as promised, the minister demands. According to his own statement, he is not doing this to save fossil fuels, but to keep the way open for another climate-neutral technology in addition to electric cars: synthetic fuels, so-called e-fuels, are to power combustion engines instead of gasoline and diesel. If the Commission does not comply with his demand, he will not agree to the draft law ready for decision, the minister threatens.

In view of this turn, the EU institutions and the Berlin coalition partners are astonished, as the central instrument on the way to more climate protection has long been believed. Lower Saxony's Prime Minister Stephan Weil (SPD) said in Brussels that Wissing's intervention had "caused a lot of irritation" in the EU. Germany threatens to "become a climate brake block in Europe," criticized Green MEP Michael Bloss.

The FDP veto confuses the usual process

What is certain is that the FDP has shaken up the usual course of EU legislation. According to a proposal by the EU Commission, the Council of Ministers – i.e. the member states – and the EU Parliament coordinate their positions, then let these positions lead to a compromise and that this is then finally approved by Parliament and the Council.

All these steps have already been taken – with one exception: the member states still have to give their final approval to the compromise. The qualified majority required for this means that 55% of the Member States, which together make up at least 65% of the total EU population, must agree. The rejection of three states – Italy, Poland and Bulgaria – is clear. If the FDP sticks to its no, Germany would have to abstain from the decisive vote according to the coalition agreement, although the Green Federal Environment Minister would like to agree. The necessary qualified majority would then not be achieved, the law would have failed.

So far, so theoretical. In truth, none of the parties involved wants to risk a failure of the project, not even the Federal Ministry of Transport, which can live well with the end of fossil fuels – as long as there is a back door for e-fuels. This key project is also too important for the EU Commission. From the Brussels authority, different things can be heard about Wissing's accusation.

In terms of content, there are similarities with Commission Vice-President Timmermans

On the one hand, it is said that the Commission is not legally obliged to make such a proposal. It is also recalled that the Commission has the right of initiative in such matters. Somewhat naughtily, it is added that the proposal can only be tackled – if at all – once the corresponding legislative text has been adopted. On the other hand, it is said that the responsible Vice-President Frans Timmermans is quite positive about the Minister's concerns. While Wissing had complained loudly on Tuesday that Timmermans had refused all requests for talks so far, it is now said to have come to a rapprochement.