Stuttgart and Brussels can retire to the beach as KBA ponders final refrigerant report

Stuttgart and Brussels can retire to the beach as KBA ponders final refrigerant report

Smoke from the battlefield currently engulfing France and Germany concerning the interminable refrigerant row shows no sign of dissipating as both sides continue to lock horns.

The fog of war was not exactly lifted either with the German road safety authority - the Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (KBA) publishing its report late yesterday (8 August) afternoon  leading all sides in this interminable argument to hastily claim some sort of partial victory in their respective positions.

Both Mercedes and the European Commission (EC) have maintained their side of the safety/CO2/r134a/r1234yf row to be vindicated and as both point out, the KBA report is still at its interim stage with the full results due in the autumn.

So Stuttgart and Brussels can retire to the beach safe in the knowledge the boffins have still to come up with a definitive answer to the questions pitting France and Germany head on in a row of epic proportions.

Meanwhile, French Mercedes-Benz dealers in the guise of the Groupement des Distributeurs et Reparateurs, are becoming increasingly anxious they will have to start making staff partially redundant, 1,500 out of an 11,000 total was the number quoted to me by the body's president, Jean-Claude Bernard, as 5,000 cars go undeliverd.

If the dealers weren't big enough guns by themselves there are three more equally big beasts of the jungle flexing their muscles and digging in for the long haul.

Step forward the French Environment Ministry, which extraordinary invoked Article 29 of the European Mobile Air Conditioning (MAC) directive, allowing vehicle registrations to be suspended in extreme cases where there is a significant risk to road safety or public health.

Naturally, Mercedes flatly rejects this point of view, caustically replying: "In our view this is obviously not the case and the respective actions are legally indefensible.

"Over 95% of all existing and newly produced vehicles in Europe are equipped with the proven and safe refrigerant r134a."

And the German automaker has radically upped the stakes - appealing to France's highest judicial authority - the Conseil d'Etat or Council of State - for a preliminary injunction to allow certification of its A, B, CLA and SL models using r134a - which it argues is infinitely preferable - if higher CO2-emitting - than the Brussels-authorised r1234yf - that Mercedes argues can be highly flammable in certain conditions.

And despite Mercedes taking comfort from the KBA report, it still intends to plough on with the Council of State hearing on 23 August, while the EC is presumably preparing its own riposte should the Germans succeed.

Of course Brussels - never able to resist trying to dictate to sovereign European Union Member States its own position - has already waded into the argument with its own mysterious statement sent to just-auto.

"Given the fact some stakeholders are concerned about changes in the testing plans and procedures during the risk assessment process as well as of lack of transparency by authorities, the Commission has offered its help to review the testing procedures."

Eh? I rang Brussels to clarify what it meant by "some stakeholders are concerned about changes in the the testing plans" and the equally baffling "lack of transparency by authorities."

Do they mean the KBA currently testing r1234yf or the EC 'in-house science service,' the Joint Research Centre (JSC), which has bafflingly been dragooned into the laboratory to help with the process?

The relevant road safety body is supposed to mandate what it deems to be acceptable, which should then be ratifed by all 28 Member States in the EU, so what on earth is the JSC doing involved?

"We are happy about that [JSC]," the KBA told me adding somewhat cryptically. "We are the national product safety authority for Germany, so it is not a German, not a national problem we have to face. It is a European problem we have to face."

So if the good people of the KBA in the autumn finally find r1234yf is indeed as flammable as Mercedes insists, will the EC back down, will the French Environment Ministry accept the findings and will the automaker start to clear its huge backlog of undelivered cars, or will the French simply refuse to accept the boffins' results?

Mercedes has clearly invested in an insurance policy with the Conseil d'Etat hearing on 23 August, but even if that goes in the Germans' favour, what then? Does it go to Presidential and Chancellor level?

And there's the other question. Underlying all these shenanigans lies the suspicion voiced to me this is all a wheeze hatched up by France's embattled socialist government which is looking at the double whammy of already huge unemployment numbers and its domestic auto industry which is making untold thousands of lay-offs - and which could well make a whole lot more as home consumers flock to Mercedes models.

So, Mercedes, Paris, the KBA, the European Commission, the JRC, the French dealers association, the Conseil d'Etat, are all deeply involved in this massively complex conundrum, is there anyone else?

Well, yes there is. From Berlin, the German Transport Ministry has offered its unequivocal support to its carmaker. "Mercedes is [going] on their path and we are supporting their view," a German Transport Ministry spokesperson told me from the German capital.

"We are exchanging letters with the government of France on [the] interpretation of European legislation.

"The car market - [it] should be in their responsibility to bring on the market technically correct cars and [we] don't want the European Union to say use this or that cooling liquid if it does not work. It is a technical issue the car industry has to solve."

Isn't the key phrase there: "[We] don't want the European Union to use this or that cooling liquid if it does not work." In other words, who has the veto here, national, sovereign Parliaments directly elected by the people or a largely appointed European Commission wishing to impose its own views?

Mercedes is currently working on an alternative, CO2-based refrigerant to r134a, but this will not be ready until around 2017, with even that target viewed as "ambitious."

Surely, the EC needs to cut Mercedes some slack given the fact they may have an alternative.

This morning Mercedes mentioned the word 'compromise' to me.

As the Germans are holding out an olive branch, can Paris and Brussels?