Will the end of the combustion engine still tip over? Superficially, in the discussion about the combustion ban, everything is in the interest of the FDP. On Friday, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer joined the criticism: "I, too, will oppose banning the internal combustion engine," he said in Vienna. For Monday, the Czech Ministry of Transport has invited twelve countries from Germany to France to Italy to the car summit in Brussels. It should go to the controversial emission standard Euro-7, now the combustion engine should be in focus. Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans is moving. And in Berlin, the Federal Environment Ministry is apparently prepared to accept a solution for all new cars, no longer just for special vehicles such as ambulances.

Hendrik Kafsack

Economic correspondent in Brussels.

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Even a concrete solution is circulating in Brussels. The Commission could propose to revise EU rules on fuel efficiency – paving the way for the use of synthetic fuels (e-fuels) in internal combustion engines. This would have the advantage that the law passed by the European Parliament on climate targets for cars would no longer have to be changed. All those involved in Brussels want to prevent this at all costs, as renegotiations would not only cost time, but would also endanger the complex climate package for 2030 as a whole. Everything from emissions trading to climate targets for ships to the expansion of green electricity is interrelated.

Specifically, the Commission would propose to change the definition of CO2-neutral fuels. So far, this has been based on whether CO2 is emitted at the exhaust. This is exactly what has sealed the end of the combustion engine so far. Because the climate law for cars does not directly prohibit the combustion engine. It only prohibits all cars that are not driven with CO2-neutral fuels, i.e. in which CO2 comes from the exhaust. This is fulfilled by electric cars and hydrogen-powered cars. This is different for cars that run on e-fuels – even if they only release the CO2 that is previously removed from the air during the production of e-fuels. If it were no longer decisive how much CO2 comes out of the exhaust, but what the overall CO2 balance looks like, the door would be open again for combustion engines powered by e-fuels after the reference year 2035.

Face-saving solutions

However, the dispute is not yet close to being resolved, the Commission warns. The model is just one of several currently being discussed between the two main players – Timmermans and German Transport Minister Volker Wissing. The talks are far from nearing completion. When the Swedish EU Council Presidency can resume the vote in the Council of Ministers on the climate law for cars, which was suspended after the FDP's no, remains open.

It is a foregone conclusion that no one will subsequently deny the FDP the right to claim victory – however much the blockade of the FDP may have damaged Germany's reputation and the credibility of the EU legislative process. The much-quoted "compromise engine EU" is always aimed at producing face-saving solutions for all sides. As a rule, this applies even to cross-shots fired by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

However, it is also clear that the FDP will probably not achieve more than one stage victory. Before the final vote of the Council of Ministers on the car targets, the Commission will not present a concrete legislative proposal that clears the way for e-fuels and combustion engines. It is about a "declaration" of the Commission, with a concrete commitment and probably also a timetable for the submission of a proposal, they say. In a way, the Commission would thus establish what Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) in the summer – albeit at that time, contrary to Wissing's claims, without concrete time commitments.

Regardless of this, a legislative proposal is far from being a law. It must be adopted by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers in the same way as the currently blocked climate law for cars. Both EU institutions could still seal the end of combustion engines by simply rejecting the proposal. So far, there has been no majority against the combustion phase-out. And in the European Parliament, at least for the time being, the willingness to accommodate Germany on this issue is likely to be rather low after Wissing's heavily criticized last-minute intervention.