* Germany accused of breaching EU law on car refrigerants
* European Commission gives Germany two months to respond
* Daimler, Germany insist the use of their coolant is legal
By Tom Körkemeier and Ilona Wissenbach
BRUSSELS/STUTTGART, Jan 23 The European
Commission launched legal proceedings against Germany on
Thursday over Daimler's refusal to remove a banned
refrigerant from new cars, the latest in a series of clashes
between Brussels and Berlin.
The EU executive's decision follows months of investigation
by the Commission into the German luxury carmaker's refusal,
backed by Berlin, to apply an EU law banning an air-conditioning
coolant known as R134a.
In response, the German government and Daimler said they did
not believe the continued use of the refrigerant amounted to a
breach of EU rules.
Instead they urged EU authorities to reconsider whether a
suggested substitute, known as R1234yf and manufactured by U.S.
conglomerate Honeywell, really was safer.
"We are opening a procedure against Germany," EU industry
commissioner Antonio Tajani told reporters, making clear that
the Commission had not taken a final decision on the matter.
Germany now has two months to respond. A formal procedure
for breach of EU rules is a multi-stage process which takes
months. If an appeals process is unsuccessful the dispute ends
up before the European Court of Justice, and could ultimately
result in heavy fines.
The move is the latest in a series of clashes between the
Commission and the German government. Last month, EU officials
said they planned to investigate billions of euros worth of
renewable energy tax exemptions that Germany grants to heavy
In November, the Commission said it would look into whether
Germany's persistently high current account surplus was harming
the European economy as a whole.
At an energy conference in Berlin this week, German Economy
and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel launched an unusually blunt
attack on Brussels, saying Berlin would defend its interests
against outside interference.
Daimler says its refusal to phase out R134a, a global
warming agent 1,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is
justified by safety concerns over R1234yf, a view supported by
Germany's ministry of transport.
The EU "mobile air conditioning" directive 2006/40/EC bans
the use of R134a in models approved for sale since the start of
2011. Vehicle types certified earlier, or their derivatives,
have until 2017 to comply.
The controversy stems from the fact that some new Daimler
cars were not initially approved to use R134a, but that this
approval was later sought retroactively via an "extension" after
concerns about the safety of the newer substance surfaced.
In a statement, the Stuttgart-based carmaker pointed out
that it had won approval from the German government for the
continued use of R134a while a newer generation CO2-based
refrigerant is developed.
Around 130,000 Daimler cars would have to be withdrawn if
the Commission's view on the coolant prevails.
The carmaker argues that R1234yf can emit toxic hydrogen
fluoride gas when it burns, making it a safety hazard.
But other major carmakers, after conducting their own tests,
have switched their newest models to the coolant developed by
Honeywell in partnership with Dupont.
"Daimler says there is a safety problem with the new
coolant, but we do not see that," Industry Commissioner Tajani
Germany's automobile industry association VDA said it was
surprised the European Commission was taking formal steps even
before tests on the safety of 1234yf had been evaluated.
The EU executive also threatened Britain, Belgium and
Luxembourg with legal action, saying it suspected they had
sought to circumvent the coolant rules by approving new vehicles
on the basis of older technical standards.