Should you desert the ACEA to make your voice heard? Carlos Tavares' highly political gamble


The continuing turbulence involved in negotiating the major changes underway in the automotive industry is making collective action at industry level even more difficult than usual. It is therefore tempting for manufacturers disappointed by the successive defeats of their lobby in the face of politics and environmental NGOs to go it alone, and Carlos Tavares made this choice this week, informed by the Volkswagen precedent. However, whereas Volkswagen had been discreet, Stellantis is much more explicit and is taking the risk of posing, rather awkwardly no doubt, as a direct competitor to politicians.

Carlos Tavares' decision to withdraw from the ACEA on 13 June is being interpreted as a kind of mood swing on the part of a client against its lobbying service provider, who failed to put forward Stellantis' arguments to the European Parliament. Insofar as this defeat in Brussels is part of a long sequence that began with the Volkswagen affair in the United States in autumn 2015, it is understandable that Europe's second-largest carmaker should be tempted to go it alone after having tried in vain to 'play collectively'.
In 2018-2019, when PSA had already bought Opel but had not begun its merger with FCA, Carlos Tavares himself chaired the ACEA and failed dramatically in his attempts to convince MEPs to abandon the CAFE reduction targets they intended to impose on manufacturers for the period 2021-2030.

It should also be remembered that in the longer history of manufacturer lobbying, PSA-ACEA relations got off to a very poor start (1). The ACEA was created in 1991 to take over from the CCMC (Committee of Common Market Manufacturers). The latter was a club of manufacturers whose 'nationality' was European and who, in Europe and elsewhere in the world, intended to assert their interests. In line with the initial aims of the "European project", the CCMC's primary objective was to prevent the Common Market from becoming a lever facilitating the domination of large non-European companies and, contrary to the wishes of some of the more "Atlanticist" groups, including the Germans, there was no question of offering seats on the CCMC to the Americans - or, later, to the Japanese or Koreans. At the same time as the ACEA was being planned and created, the British - under Margaret Thatcher - had scuttled their national champion and were preparing to welcome Japanese investors. The idea was to create a club of "manufacturers present in Europe", which would welcome Ford and GM from the outset, and would then have no reason in principle to oppose Toyota, Honda or Nissan joining the club. At the time, Jacques Calvet protested vehemently against what he considered a suicidal heresy and refused to take PSA on board the new ship. PSA eventually abandoned its empty chair policy in 1994, but 28 years later Carlos Tavares seems intent on ending the story as it began.

The parallels end there, since Jacques Calvet believed in collective action by the industry at European level and, as had been the case since the early 1950s, wanted the club conducting this political work in the European Community to be a closed club that did not have to worry about the interests of non-European manufacturers. Carlos Tavares, on the other hand, has quite different concerns: he is not digesting what has happened since 2015 and, noting that the ACEA tool embodying the industry's action has for the last 7 years proved ineffective in reversing the trend towards a loss of influence for the defenders of the automotive cause, wants to try his hand at lobbying on his own. He seems convinced (or pretends to be) that this political issue can be solved by science and the presentation of facts. Stellantis has announced that the work that ACEA is doing badly today will be carried out tomorrow by the structuring of a new "forum" and, as Les Echos tells us:
"this new forum will be 'based on facts'," explains the manufacturer, who adopts a formulation similar to that used in the climate field, where we speak of policies or strategies 'based on science'".

Beyond the criticism levelled at ACEA, Carlos Tavares is obviously playing into the hands of all those who see prohibition in 2035 and the decisions that preceded it as an ideological delusion self-fuelled by out-of-touch elites ignorant of scientific, technological, industrial and commercial facts and realities. ACEA's shortcomings are nothing more than a reflection of those of its Brussels bureaucrats and politicians: locked into a world and a vocabulary structured around the urgency of climate change and the conviction that we can never go far enough or fast enough in the face of it, both sides are refusing to look at the facts and see any reminder of the realities as a delaying tactic on the part of industry, which is above all anxious to do nothing, or as "blackmail for jobs".

The only hope of a return to reason, therefore, would be to break out of this circle, which is reputed to organise a form of schizophrenia that is deleterious to public action. Carlos Tavares, in a rationalist-populist impulse, is here taking to the extreme the convictions already revealed by his media 'sorties', which have been skilfully distilled over several months or years. In announcing the creation of 'his' forum, he adopts the same vocabulary and themes, arguing, for example, that the mobilisation of all stakeholders and expertise will finally allow a 360° examination of the issues (poorly) addressed by politics up to now.

Somewhat like belonging to the 'Republican camp' in the political debates between the two elections, this ability to conduct this 360° review can be claimed by it, but will also be claimed by others, including NGOs such as Transport & Environment or the Commission or the European Parliament. They will argue that they do not have to defend their shareholders, their profits, their factories, their market shares and/or their more or less judicious past and current technological choices. Fundamentally, it will be difficult for Carlos Tavares to convince the public, the press or politicians that the work and opinions produced by his forum are intrinsically superior to those available elsewhere, and that the fact that a single company is funding the scheme gives more guarantees from this point of view than when a consortium does so.

In fact, contrary to what he claims, if you're not too lazy, on each of the questions posed (recycling, recharging, electricity production, availability of raw materials, effects on employment, speed of fleet renewal, etc.), there is a vast amount of literature to be found and, by combining these different contributions, we won't be very far from a 360° examination. The simple fact is that on most of the issues that are opened up in this way, the facts are not enough in themselves: there is a debate because there are trade-offs to be made, choices to be made, stakeholders who have to accept that they will be harmed and others who will be favoured. This is the policy or the government of the automotive industry and the transition we want it to make, and it is not scandalous that these choices should not be discussed in a Stellantis Forum but in the arenas whose role it is to structure democratic debate. And when it comes to being a legitimate interlocutor with politicians and/or the trade unions representing workers in the sector, the sectoral organisation is not necessarily the worst.

At a time when industry has to negotiate this transition and its fate for the years to come in the societies that welcome it, it is in the interests of both manufacturers and their political or trade union contacts in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Rome or Madrid to defend rather than call into question these branch solidarities. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that such solidarity is very difficult to perpetuate in any case. They are difficult to perpetuate in a routine system because companies are in competition with each other and do not all have the same positioning, the same cost functions, and so on. This is even more the case when profound changes have to be made. This is what has undermined the effectiveness of ACEA lobbying, which VW has more or less deserted without saying so in order to push ahead with electrification in Europe: aware that they had to abandon the diesel horse very quickly in order to get on board a new one that would restore their image and make them politically audible, Volkswagen's managers have not participated in all the efforts of their colleagues, even if they are German, to delay the deadlines. Nor have they shown the same concern for "soldier hydrogen", whom they have been happily and consistently canarding for several years.

Nor were they convinced by Tavares' talk of technological neutrality. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind the choice of Stellantis: at the head of a group that now weighs almost as much as its challenger, Carlos Tavares dreams of doing better on his own than he did when he agreed to make common cause with the other manufacturers. Volkswagen has not officially left the ACEA, and in the space of a few years has been content to restore its ability to influence the industry, which had been eroded by its lies, through fairly conventional lobbying. It has not considered it necessary to set up an alternative arena to those in Berlin or Brussels that are legitimately entrusted with the task of regulating the industry. Stellantis believes it is time to play things very differently. Time will tell whether being much louder pays off more than keeping a low profile.

(1) Jullien B., Pardi T., Ramirez S.(2014), "The EU's government of automobiles: from 'harmonization' to deep conflict", in Jullien B., Smith A., 2014, The EU's Government of Industries: Omnipresent, Incomplete and Depoliticized, Routledge

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