EU consumer organisations’ demands for the upcoming European Parliament elections
From 22 to 25 May, European citizens will vote to elect their representatives for the European Parliament. BEUC and its 41 member organisations have prepared an election manifesto to serve as a guideline for the newly elected Member of European Parliament (MEOs) to put consumers up front in their decision-making.
1. Setting the scene: The EU Single Market
Before looking ahead at what we urge future MEPs to commit to one needs to keep in mind the reality of the EU’s Single Market and its implications for consumers’ daily lives. It is this reality of the consumers’ Single Market experience which should guide MEPs when taking decisions.
- Rights on paper, but not in reality: To ensure consumers can enjoy the rights given to them, enforcement needs to be stepped up and access to justice and redress improved.
- Lack of official support for consumer policy and organisations: The financial crisis and budget cuts has complicated the task of consumer protection authorities and consumer organisations.
- Empowerment or information overload?: The current overload of often incomprehensible information and the increasing complexity of markets hamper consumers’ chance of making well-informed choices.
- Essential services and sectors most problematic and basic services increasingly unaffordable: According to recent figures, top of the list of consumer concerns are essential sectors such financial services, housing, heating, electricity, mobile phone services, internet provision and fuel for vehicles.
- Liberalised markets not living up to expectations: It has become evident over the years that the liberalisation of markets does not automatically mean more competition and that in many of the liberalised sectors consumers witness evermore concentrated markets and the advent of increasingly powerful oligopolies.
- Commercial strategies can prevent consumers from shopping across borders: Consumers are often confronted with companies’ artificial barriers to shop across borders.
- Smart regulation – nice name, serious side-effects: Reducing red tape should not be at the expense of safety standards and protection rules.
2. Consumer priorities for the European Parliament legislature
From digital rights to financial services and from food issue to contractual consumer rights, the next European Parliament will have to cover a wide range of issues which affect the way European consumers shop, use banking services, make online orders or plan their holidays. In light of the characteristics of the EU Single Market mentioned above MEPs will have to face the challenge to bring positive change to consumers’ daily lives.
We recommend future MEPs to focus their efforts on 4 areas where they can concretely and positively consumers’ experience.
Restore trust in our meat
Consumers expect the food on their plate to be safe and of good quality. Consumer trust in their food, and meat in particular, is very fragile and recent developments risk damaging it permanently. The push for chlorine washes on poultry (as used in the US; although rejected by the EU for the time being), lactic acid washes on beef (passed at the end of 2012), the push for food from the offspring of cloned animals to be permitted without labelling undermine people’s trust in their food.
The extension of origin labelling to meat used as an ingredient in processed food, a cloning legislation which allows consumers to choose whether the products they buy come from clones or their offspring, the reductions of antibiotic use in animal husbandry and official controls which help restore consumer trust in food and the food chain are important measures we expect MEPs to put their weight behind.
Ensure the financial sector delivers products and services consumers really want and need
The financial crisis of the past 5 years has seen a large number of European and national laws being adopted to address the malfunctions of the financial sector. However, consumers are still confronted with numerous scandals and failures which results in people being left with serious concerns about the soundness of their loans, savings and pensions.
Delivering products and services consumers really want and need requires the tackling of the following areas:
- The EU should adopt measures to ensure powerful and independent Financial Consumer Protection Authorities exist in every Member State and cooperate under the aegis of a strong European supervisory authority in charge of consumer protection in financial services.
- Conflicts of interest – resulting from commissions, sales targets and remuneration schemes – need to be addressed. The best way forward would be to strengthen real independent financial advice.
Stop online discrimination
Consumers seeking to buy digital content such as e-books online are not treated as equal to consumers of tangible products. Consumers face discrimination both in terms of access to online digital content products (many online stores are only accessible to residents of their own country) and of their use, once they have acquired them (prohibition on transferring the legally acquired content of a digital product to another device). In addition, consumers do not have the same, efficient remedies across the EU against the traders in case the digital content product is defective.
A modernisation of the Information Society Directive (defining the permitted use of legally acquired digital products), the Consumer Sales Directive (dealing with consumer’s remedies in case of a lack of conformity) and the Services Directive (prohibiting the discrimination against consumers on the basis of their nationality and place of residence) would help correcting the consumer detriment – a detriment which according to Commissions figures amounts to €64 billion a year.
Improve legal guarantees and help products become more durable
Consumers’ guarantee rights which provides for the exchange, repair or reimbursement of a defective product too often exist only on paper. The Parliament should focus on improving legal guarantees and making exercising them easier, including having better solutions when durable products are defective. Typically, after 6 months traders often do not honour the guarantee because of consumer’s inability to prove that the product was defective from the start. This reduces a 2 year guarantee right to 6 months in practice.
The guarantee period of 2 years does not take into account that durable goods should last much longer in accordance to reasonable consumer expectations. A longer guarantee period would motivate producers to increase the lifespan of their products. In this context it is important to take measures to address planned obsolescence.
Respond to development affecting consumers
From a consumer point of view the yardstick for the next European Parliament will be to decide on tangible steps to realise the demands outlined above. However, societal, technological or market developments will bring issues into the limelight which are currently on no ones radar. Our assessment of the European Parliament’s work at the end of their legislature in 2019 will also depend on how MEPs will react to those developments and if while doing so the consumer will be at the heart of their decisions.
3. Bringing it all together: the EU-US trade agreement (TTIP)
During the next term, the European Commission will ask the European Parliament to ratify a trade deal with the US – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). A free trade agreement could benefit consumers by upping market pressure to improve products and services, lowering prices, increasing consumer choice or heightening EU-US cooperation on product or food safety.
BEUC would only support TTIP if it maintains current consumer rights and does not hamper the adoption of new protection measures – also in light of technological uncertainty. However, because this trade deal is less about the reduction of tariffs but rather the removal of non-tariff trade barriers there is a substantial risk that consumer rights, safety rules or environment protection standards are attacked as a burden to trade.
We also oppose the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement body which would allow investors to claim compensation from governments when they believe that regulations harm their (expected) investments. We see a risk that this would allow corporations to sue governments who decide on measures to protect consumers, workers or the environment.
4. Our overarching principle: sustainability
The economic and climate crisis combined with the soaring cost of living illustrate the need for consumer policy to develop new solutions which improve the quality of life of current and future generations. More sustainable consumption and production patterns show important ways of how to emerge from the current financial crisis by positively impacting on innovation. Much can be achieved with consuming differently, not necessary less if new innovative business models will be put in place:
- Producing more durable goods and promoting repair;
- Cradle-to-cradle and “zero waste” concepts;
- Using services rather than buying products.
We call on the European Parliament to change the legal and commercial framework conditions to offer a broader range of sustainable products and services at sustainable prices to all consumers.
It is common knowledge that many consumer policies are shaped at EU-level. We call on all future MEPs to use the next 5 years of shaping Europe’s consumer policies in a positive, consumer-centred way.