With studies showing Europeans wary of placing orders for goods and services outside their home countries, the EU executive’s justice and consumer commissioners vowed yesterday (9 February) to press for approval of proposals to help consumers and online shoppers.
The proposals, outlined in a sweeping package known as the Consumer Agenda, would allow consumers to seek out-of-court resolution in cases of fraud or disputes over quality and delivery of goods and services acquired in another EU country.
“I want to ensure that consumers are as protected when the are shopping online or across borders as they are at home,” said Commission Vice President Viviane Reding, in charge of justice and fundamental rights.
John Dalli, the health and consumer commissioner, said “strong consumer rights” - along with product safety, consumer information and enforcement of existing laws - are priorities.
Reding and Dalli appeared together at a European Parliament hearing on the EU’s Consumer Agenda. The roadmap for 2013-2020 seeks to cover all the Commission’s consumer-related efforts and builds on existing rules, such as the Consumer Rights Directive that was approved in 2011.
Jonas Bering Liisberg, Denmark’s deputy permanent representative to the EU, said forging agreements on an alternative dispute resolution option for customers and online shoppers appeared possible this year. Denmark holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
Also, for the first time, consumer groups would have the right to file complaints and seek compensation on behalf of individual or groups of customers.
In November, Dalli proposed an Alternative Dispute Resolution Directive that would require countries to provide out-of-court arbiters, ombudsmen or consumer boards to help handle disputes. The Commission also proposes an EU-wide online platform that would allow consumers to file complaints in their own language against a company or service in another nation.
The EU executive has previously recommended that national governments provide out-of-court alternatives for consumers, and most countries have enacted laws, although the provisions are not uniform. Neither Slovenia nor Slovakia has alternative dispute resolution for consumers, while several Baltic and Nordic countries have strong arbitration systems.
Support for EU-wide standards
Business and consumer groups told MEPs they welcomed the steps toward a Consumer Agenda.
But efforts to strengthen consumer’s rights in the common marketplace brings familiar warnings about the EU’s ability to enforce its directives – which must be incorporated into national law – and regulations, which are legally binding across the EU.
“We can all agree that solid enforcement is essential, it is essential to creating a level playing field, it is also essential to avoid that the legislation does exactly the opposite of what it aims to do,” said Paul Coebergh van den Braak, a senior director of the BusinessEurope industry group.
“If we let the rogue players get away with bringing non-complying products to market, they have the competitive advantage so we need surveillance and penalties to avoid that.”
More than 60% of European consumers don’t shop via the Internet and just 9% purchased goods or services outside their home country, according to a 2011 Commission report. Growth is handicapped by fears of fraud and non-delivery.
There is also concern about lack of cross-border redress and inaction from home-state regulators.
“We should put stronger pressure on the member states that are not doing enough,” said Danish MEP Christel Schaldemose (Socialists & Democrats), “including naming and shaming those who do not comply.”
“It is at the end of the day a question of trust and a question of enforcement and we need to do more.”