Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Sanctioning EU-wide infringements: is there a need for an overhaul of the existing enforcement regime?

I recently read the news that the Commission announced taking steps towards fining Google, Twitter and Facebook for breaching EU consumer protection rules. The Commission has found that the standard terms and conditions of the three companies are continuously breaking EU consumer protection rules, for example by forcing European consumers to take their disputes to California courts (see the press release here). The Commission has warned the companies that sanctions will take place unless they bring their standard terms and conditions in compliance with EU consumer protection rules, the final deadline being now the end of September. However, although the breach affects consumers across the EU, the Commission is powerless in taking EU-wide action to protect every affected European consumer, and to defend the authority of EU consumer law. The Commission can only negotiate and exercise pressure by putting forward the prospect of being fined by Member States. However, final actions need to be taken by Member States and their respective authorities.

In spite of harmonizing substantive law, (public) enforcement of consumer law remains national. It is confined to national enforcement authorities, the Commission's role being simply in coordinating their activities via the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) network. Consequently, EU wide infringements must also be addressed at national level. In the situation like the present one, the Commission cannot directly sanction businesses in breach of EU consumer law. Fines have to be ordered by national authorities. It makes me wonder whether this is the most effective and efficient way to enforce EU consumer Law? The one potentially huge fine is now sliced up on 28 slices, even if the aggregate amount of 28 fines would be higher than one single fine, the present solution requires considerable resources at Member States' level for conducting the enforcement procedure and for monitoring compliance with the sanctions. The slicing up the fines and the 28 independent enforcement procedures may undermine the preventive, deterrent effect of the sanction. The fact that the Commission negotiates with the companies but has actually no power to act may leave a confusing message as to the importance of EU consumer law. It looks like that harmonized substantive law rules fall apart at national level... Leaving aside aspects of effectiveness and efficiency, it looks like this approach may ultimately encroach on one of the  basic values on which the EU is founded upon, on the principle of the rule of law (Article 2 TFEU). It therefore begs the broader question as to whether there is a need to overhaul and improve the existing regime of the enforcement of consumer law by empowering the Commission to take enforcement actions against EU-wide infringements.

Even though there may be disagreements on the answer to the above question, and some may argue that enforcement of consumer law should stay national, it looks like that we may look ahead of some changes. According to the press release: 'EU lawmakers are currently negotiating a separate draft EU law that would give the Commission more power to directly sanction firms that violate consumer protection rules'.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Is there a need to reform European financial supervision for the benefit of consumers?

The European Commission has recently closed its public consultation on the Operation of the European Supervisory Authorities (see the feedback statement here).

The supervision of financial firms in the EU is subject to a complex, multi layered system consisting of national and EU supervisory authorities that has became even more complex after the creation of the Banking Union. For us here most important are the European Supervisory Authorities (ESAs). The ESAs, the European Banking Authority (EBA), the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), the European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority (EIOPA) has been created in 2010 as a response to the financial crisis. Although they are primarily concerned with prudential supervision (ensuring that financial firms have enough capital to operate, that they are safely and soundly), consumer protection is also on the list of their objectives.

Consequently, the recently held consultation asked whether the current tasks and powers of the ESAs are sufficient to protect consumers and how they could be improved in this respect.

Many stakeholders found that the scope of ESAs' tasks and powers is adequate and should not be extended. Instead, they should use their existing powers more efficiently, and should be more aligned with the problems at national level. However, some stakeholders saw room for extending ESAs' powers, e.g. by giving ESAs more powers for consumer protect purposes, want to see more work in the financial innovation space, including on virtual currencies, or on financial education, cross-border protection, big data etc. Finally, some, like Better Finance, advocate for the overhaul of the current system of supervision by opting for a 'twin-peak' model instead of the current 'silo' approach. The argument is that the current ESAs prioritise prudential matters over consumer protection matters (see their press release here).

Learning from the experience of the UK, the twin peak model could be an interesting option. In the UK, the former Financial Services Authority, having both the mandates of prudential supervision and consumer protection, failed to properly balance its two limbs of supervision. Although it is said to have paid more attention to conduct matters, having too much to do resulted in a number of conduct failures causing significant detriment to consumers (PPI, payday loans, etc).  The creation of a separate consumer protection authority (the Financial Conduct Authority) has improved consumer protection standards and practice, and the approach so far seems to work well for the UK. However, we must admit, that although the solution of having only one supervisory authority for the entire EU financial market sounds appealing, it is a radical suggestion that requires, among others, substantial background research.

What do you think, is there a need for an EU Financial Consumer Protection Authority, and is it a viable solution?