Thursday, 5 January 2012

Roadmap for the European Consumer Agenda

I mentioned yesterday (Your voice in Europe) that it is easy to follow upcoming policy and legislative initiatives of the European Commission via published roadmaps. Among the roadmaps prepared for 2012 there is one on the European Consumer Agenda. This new policy document is supposed to be adopted in March/April 2012. What are its main goals? I present you a summary of what is to be expected:

1. Product safety.

While in the past years cooperation between market surveillance authorities has increased, further progress in ensuring that standards for product safety are the same across Europe (and are being enforced) is necessary. Further development of the RAPEX network is an essential part of this, however, the absence of a clear pan-European enforcement framework causes problems. These problems increased due to the globalisation of the production chain in the past years (ca 70% of dangerous products notified in RAPEX originate from outside the EU). The aim of the Consumer Agenda will be to ensure consumer product safety, to develop international cooperation to deal with the globalisation of production chains, to provide safety of services, as well as food safety. The General Product Safety Directive is currently under revision, which means that these objectives may be adjusted based on the outcome of that revision.

2. Consumer market monitoring.

Consumer policy is supported by up-to-date reports on consumer behavior and consumer market. Consumer Market Scoreboard and other in-depth studies conducted for the EC or independently play a significant role in making sure that consumer policy remains valid and effective. While market monitoring is quite recent (started in 2009), it should be continued in order to identify trends, help improve consumer decision-making and provide a solid basis for policy makers.

3. Consumer education.

There is a need to consolidate education tools provided by various European organisations (e.g. Dolceta), in order to make them more effective. Current education tools (one-size-fits-all) are no longer adapted to consumer needs, e.g. less than half of consumers across the EU27 feel both confident, knowledgeable and protected as consumers. Additionally, reports have shown that there is a need to increase consumers' awareness of their rights as well their financial literacy. A single consumer information resource (dynamic and interactive) should be developed. There is an on-going evaluation of existing education tools, the results of which will be available in June. The objective is also to conduct awareness-raising campaigns on issues affecting consumers.

4. Supporting consumer organisations.

National and EU consumer organisations are seen as crucial participants in works on future European policy. This means that more training and assistance needs to be provided, especially to national consumer organisations whose recognition vary among Member States.

5.  Consumer rights.

While on one hand consumers are often not aware of their rights in the EU, on the other hand existing legislation doesn't always provide consumers with sufficient protection. E.g. package travel directive fails to protect consumers who book their holidays themselves, independently of travel agencies, via various websites online (ca 56% consumers book their holidays this way). Consumer protection as far as purchase of digital products is concerned is unclear on a European and often also national level (while ca 54% of consumers of digital products had experienced at least one problem in the course of the past 12 months). 

Clearly, consumer legislation should be further adapted to the changed consumption patterns. The objective is to contribute to the implementation of a revised Package Travel Directive and the implementation and enforcement of the Timeshare Directive. Moreover, the data protection legislation should be up-dated in order to ensure that consumers get clear information and their consent is sought whenever their personal data are processed, while ensuring better data portability and making it more possible for consumers to switch between different service providers. Legislation protecting consumers against unfair commercial practices and misleading advertising should be kept up to date, as well, especially in the context of the financial services.

Additionally, where consumer rights are granted based on minimum harmonisation European measures, there is a chance of diversity between the legislation of the Member States, which leads to confusion and lack of trust in concluding cross-border transactions both for consumers and traders. These difficulties burden the development of the Single Market and should be addressed.

6. Consumer redress.

Consumer redress is a powerful tool that consumers should gain easier access to and become more aware thereof. Current awareness of consumers about the means of redress is insufficient. The goal is to examine the mechanisms of redress that are available but also the cooperation between national public enforcement authorities. The establishment of a well-functioning European Judicial Area and the development of the ADR and ODR systems should strengthen the consumer right to redress.

7. Enforcement (including cross-border enforcement).

The network of enforcement authorities (CPC Network) should be further strengthened by improving its cooperation (e.g. through active involvement of the Commission). Consumer awareness as to the existence of such networks (e.g. ECC-net) should be increased. ECC-net should strengthen cooperation with enforcement bodies so that traders will not ignore consumer complaints knowing that the ECCs have no powers to enforce compliance (including on ADR). Additionally, an important part of individual enforcement is a proper implementation of Community legislation, that allows the citizens to rely on the rights they have been given. That requires strict monitoring of the implementation of consumer legislation in all Member States, which is more effective since the implementation of online databases of implementation measures, linking also to court cases and legal expertise, and which should be upheld. Also, the Mediation Directive should be correctly implemented for cross-border disputes. Finally, consumers should have means to enforce their rights better also for small claims, which might call for the review of the European Small Claims Procedure (ESCP) as well as an initiative on a coherent approach on collective redress.

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