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'.

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