Wednesday, 20 January 2016

A look into the future: What does 2016 hold for consumer law?

There is no doubt that 2015 was quite a busy year for the European institutions. In the light of considerable social, economical and political challenges faced by the EU these days, the European Commission under the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker proclaimed that it would carefully choose its priorities and focus on feasible initiatives. While it is still too early to predict whether this approach will go beyond mere declarations, an overall policy stance can already be inferred from first two work programmes published under rather high-sounding titles: A New Start and No time for business as usual. Key objectives within ten priority areas have been defined and measures to be taken in order to reach them were announced. But what does this actually mean for consumers?

From the consumer law perspective three areas deserve particular attention:
  • Measures designed to create a connected Digital Single Market
  • Initiatives aimed to further deepen the internal market
  • EU international trade policy, especially the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is currently being negotiated by the EU and the USA
As we have already reported, first three legislative proposals implementing the Digital Single Market were presented on 9 December 2015. The first one deals with a fully novel issue of digital content (e.g. streaming music, purchasing e-books), while the second one builds upon the existing regulatory framework for online sales of goods. Both measures are seeking to fully harmonise several core aspects of online business-to-consumer sales of tangible goods and supply of digital content, including rules on pre-contractual information duties, consumer’s right to withdraw from the contract, conformity of goods and digital content as well as relevant remedies. Furthermore, a proposal for a regulation on ensuring the cross-border portability of online content services in the internal market was adopted.

In 2016 the Commission will surely try to further proceed with these measures. Its new approach to the European law-making shall ensure that the Digital Single Market strategy does not share the fate of the Common European Sales Law. Efforts are made to secure a common understanding with the European Parliament and the Council on key initiatives already at an early stage. Despite public concerns about the impact of such arrangements on the democratic process, an inter-institutional Agreement on Better Law-making has recently been finalised. Time will tell whether this approach will produce the desired results. In any case, it seems unlikely that the flagship measures implementing the Digital Single Market, which are by no means uncontroversial, will come into force in the nearest months. Also the Dutch Presidency in the Council seems to be taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude to this issue.

2016 will therefore rather be a time of intense discussions, public consultations and further legislative proposals. We may, among other things, expect a proposal aimed to bring an end to unjustified geo-blocking as well as other forms of discrimination on the basis of residence or nationality. Detailed information on the envisaged copyright reform should be presented shortly. Of particular interest are also measures, which have already been adopted in the previous years – such as Regulation 524/2013 on online dispute resolution for consumer disputes – or those at an advanced stage of adoption. It is worth noting that the European ODR platform has lately become operational and will be made available to consumers and traders on 15 February. While a faster and easier, Internet-based mechanism of resolving disputes between consumers and traders sounds like a good idea, much still needs to be done to ensure its reliability and promote its use among both parties to the contract. Furthermore, in the following months we will almost certainly witness a long-awaited reform of EU data protection law. Following the agreement reached in trilogue last month, it appears very likely that the final texts of General Data Protection Regulation and Data Protection Directive will be formally adopted in the first quarter of 2016.

From the consumer law perspective, particular attention should also be paid to the Commission’s Regulatory Fitness and Performance programme (REFIT), i.e. a systematic analysis whether the existing regulatory framework is fit for its purpose. According to the recently published roadmap, a substantial part of EU consumer law will be subject to evaluation within next 18 months, namely:
  • Directive 2005/29/EC concerning unfair business-to-consumer commercial practices in the internal market (Unfair Commercial Practices Directive);
  • Directive 1999/44/EC on certain aspects of the sale of consumer goods and associated guarantees (Sales and Guarantees Directive);
  • Directive 93/13/EEC on unfair terms in consumer contracts (Unfair Contract Terms Directive).
  • Directive 98/6/EC on consumer protection in the indication of the prices of products offered to consumers (Price Indication Directive);
  • Directive 2006/114/EC concerning misleading and comparative advertising (Misleading and Comparative Advertising Directive);
  • Directive 2009/22/EC on injunctions for the protection of consumers' interests (Injunctions Directive).
Additionally, Consumer Rights Directive 2011/83/EU and Regulation 2006/2004 on consumer protection cooperation are also expected to undergo separate evaluations in the coming months. During the first semester of 2016 public consultations on application of consumer legislation in Member States will be launched, which might well be a spark for another heated debate, reminiscent of the time when the Common European Sales Law was still on the agenda.

Without doubt 2016 will be a very exciting year in consumer law. Like every year, we will keep you posted about the most significant developments, so stay tuned!