This article is part of our special report Products for a greener planet.
Getting citizens to vote in the European elections should not be a gruelling task, according to Monique Goyens, director-general of BEUC, the EU consumer organisation. In an interview with EurActiv, she explained how a proposed “consumer pact” could re-connect voters to Europe.
Monique Goyens is director-general of BEUC, the European consumers' organisation.
BEUC recently launched a 'consumer pact ' for the European elections. Can you briefly explain what it is about?
It is high time for the European institutions to get a little bit closer to Europe's citizens. The elections would bring a unique opportunity to show to people that they are being cared for at European level. That's why we launched – together with our members – a consumer pact.
Our members will ask candidate MEPs to sign up to what we call eight consumer commitments. Those commitments are available in a brochure which has been translated into 20 languages and is available in all EU member states. It will be launched together with all BEUC's member organisations. Not on the same day, but in April.
Are there specific countries where you believe consumer issues will have a bigger electoral impact than others?
Of course, yes. Consumer traditions are totally different in the 'old' and 'new' Europe. There is a strong consumer tradition in Scandinavian countries, or in the UK and Ireland for example. It could be much more difficult to get the same message across in the 'new' member states, even if we don't use this term anymore.
What are the main elements of this consumer pact?
We have defined eight priorities to which we would like candidate MEPs to sign up. For each of the priorities, we have summarised the main issues we would like them to try to get into EU legislation in the coming legislature.
For example, in the area of access to justice, we would really like the EU to have a collective redress system for each EU consumer, which is not available now. Or in the era of consumer safety, we would like to have much less exposure of consumers to chemical dangers. We have also prepared a website, www.consumerpact.eu.
These eight priorities reflect what you believe will be the big themes which will shape consumer policy for the next legislature. How have these issues evolved compared to your previous priorities? Have some new issues emerged, and others decreased in importance?
The problem is that we have identified more emerging issues than issues which are phasing out.
For example, with the financial crisis, financial services wouldn’t have been at all such a high priority two years ago. Now, they are becoming almost priority number one because of the financial crisis. We had to redefine all our priorities with regard to financial services and supervision of financial markets. Some of our members have redefined their strategies, and the UK for example has allocated 40% of its resources to the issue.
We saw that the crisis had a lot of impact on consumers and that current measures do not address consumer issues as such – they speak about stability of financial markets, not losing or creating jobs – but the consumer prospective of the financial crisis has not been properly addressed.
One of the lessons of the financial crisis is that people do not get independent and reliable financial advice. If you go to a bank, they will never advise you to buy a house, for example, because they want to sell financial products rather than irremovable products.
We think it would really be worthwhile to explore the possibility of having independent financial advice available for consumers. That would be much more cost efficient than what is being done now, which is financial education. Financial education does not prevent people from being ripped off by bankers.
But banks will always have a vested interest in selling their commercial products to consumers…
Of course, that's the problem – good financial advice should not be left to the financial services sector.
So who should be in charge of advising consumers if it is not the banks?
Already now, in some member states, they have independent advice organisations like mediation bureaus or citizens' advice bureaus. This existing infrastructure could already be used in order to make it possible for consumers to have independent financial advice.
You mentioned financial services. Are there other big emerging areas where you see emerging consumer issues which did not exist a few years ago?
An emerging area none of us had thought about three years ago is nanotechnologies. Nanotechnology is something which will be present all over the place: in food, in consumer goods, in healthcare, in our environment. And it is something where the precautionary principle should be applied much more than it is now.
Do you see the nanotech issue remaining on BEUC's agenda for a long time?
Technically, we cannot assess the impact of nanotech on our lives, our health. It has a lot of advantages, we are not saying that it is bad, but we should not put it on the market on a large scale without knowing the long term effects of it.
You mentioned that some of your member organisations are refocusing their efforts and budgets on financial regulation. How is that affecting BEUC as a trans-European organisation? Have your budgets increased? Or are you reallocating your budgets to fit these priorities as well?
Yes, for sure. We have to follow our members’ priorities. If our members’ priorities shift, our priorities also have to shift. This is what we call in French a "lissage", but for sure financial services is much more on the European and our agenda than it was a year ago. We don’t have any increasing in our budget. We have to reallocate resources, like every sector, for the moment.
Which areas do you plan to put less resources into?
As we are to some extent the only European consumer organisation, we are being invited to many working groups or conferences or consultations in areas that are not necessarily unimportant for consumers, but less important than the financial crisis, for example.
We had to cut down on issues in which we think we can make less of a difference, like the block exemptions in the car sector, the air transport issues, some issues related to pedestrian safety, to agriculture and food…
Going back to the consumer pact, do you feel that some political parties are more receptive than others, that some are stronger allies than others?
We are politically neutral. We have friends everywhere. The test will be there: we have a website where you can see which MEPs are going to endorse our commitment to consumers. The result will be quantitative.
Historically, have you tended to find more allies on the Socialist side, on the Liberal side, or on the Greens?
It really depends on the issue at hand in fact. Of course on eco-design, the Greens are much more on our side, but ALDE has also been on our side on other issues, so I would not want to take any position on that.
How would you rate Meglena Kuneva's performance in her job as EU commissioner for consumer protection? What is her personal mark on this post, which was created for her two years ago? Do you think it will survive in the next Commission?
I hope it will survive, because having a commissioner who is really devoted to consumer policy makes a real difference. But it also makes a difference because she has a very strong personality. She raised the consumer profile within the Commission because she is a tough negotiator, even if she has a small portfolio. Of course it’s not DG Enterprise or Trade or External relations. But she has done a lot to raise consumers’ profile. They speak a lot more about consumer policy than they did before.
Now, we don’t necessarily agree with some assessments she has made about what the consumer interest is. For example, on the consumer rights proposal, we are rather critical towards her approach, but we believe that it is a really good thing that she has been there. She has really done a lot about awareness-raising and about enforcement, like the China RAPEX system. There, I think she was really quick to react and do something which was really in the consumer interest.
What is more important with regard to the Commission structure is that there is a lack of coordination. For example, there is DG Sanco and then you have DG Enterprise. General product safety is with DG Sanco, but toy safety is with DG Enterprise. This is not normal. And you can imagine the difference of approach between DG Enterprise and DG Sanco when it comes to toys. The same goes with health: pharmaceuticals are dealt with by DG Enterprise, not DG Sanco. So we would like a reallocation of those files to the DGs that are really dedicated to the policy issue. Pharmaceuticals should be under the health service, not under the industry services.
What are your concerns regarding the Consumer Rights Directive proposed in October last year? Kuneva is proposing a harmonisation of practices. That sounds like a good idea, doesn't it?
We at BEUC are not dogmatic about whether there should be full harmonisation or a real single market for consumer rights, this is not so much the point. The point is that we can accept that as long as there is a good level of consumer protection. And now there is not.
The public message around this directive has been to say that consumers can now shop across borders, that they can shop online safely and continue being protected. This is simply not the case, because there is no specific provision in the e-Commerce Directive, nothing.
This is because most of the e-commerce issues are out of the directive, and consumers cannot shop across borders, because there is no right written in the directive on cross-border shopping, but only on cross-border trade. Second, there is such a lack of clarity with this directive that there are legal uncertainties. To the point that we have written a common letter in April together with BusinessEurope, Eurocommerce and UEAPME – four organisations which don’t have the tradition to write common letters – asking Mrs Kuneva to clarify on major elements.
Is your overall assessment of Kuneva's work still positive following this directive?
First of all, technically, Kuneva can’t do anything currently with this proposal, as it is in the Parliament and the Council, but she has already said that she has agreed to make improvements.
Secondly, she has done a very big job – strongly criticised but not by us – on collective redress. She launched a green paper, she launched a consultation around the green paper, and she is going to do something in the coming weeks about the outcome of the consultation. So there, she has been strongly in favour of consumer interests, policy and advocacy. This really compensates for the proposal on consumer rights, if you want to have an overview. The proposal on consumer rights is the only issue on which she maybe made a wrong assessment from the beginning. But she has shown now that she is ready to change.
So, for you, full harmonisation of consumer rights across Europe is not at all a top priority?
Of course not. It has been shown all over the place for 25 years that a minimum level of harmonisation in term of consumer protection is the best tool, leaving member states the freedom to adopt stronger measures for consumers in their countries.
We can accept full harmonisation because it can potentially bring indirect advantages to consumers if there is more competition, meaning more choice and lower prices. But this may not come true.
For the moment, the directive provides for lower rights than what we have now in most of the member states. And we shouldn’t accept those lower rights for the possibility of maybe having more competition in the future. This why we shouldn’t accept it.
So you’re saying this is a proposal which is driven by a business agenda instead of a consumer one?
Business is welcoming it. This is a very bad sign from a consumer protection policy point of view.
Going back to the consumer portfolio in the Commission, what advice would you have for Kuneva's successor?
I think that consumer policy is a very good tool for the EU institutions to show that they care about people. It is easy. There is an EU competence which does not necessarily exist in other areas, such as health or social policy. So they should use those signs and those symbols in order to improve consumers’ lives. And they just don’t do it, for example on health claims on nutrient profiles, they just do it the other way round.
So we can understand that consumer policy is not priority number one of the Commission, but it should have some status. And I think that Mrs Kuneva has raised this status, and that it should at least be kept at the same level. But it depends on the personality of the commissioner and on the way the other commissioners are willing to listen to that.
Moving on to the Commission's RAPEX alert system for dangerous goods: There was a report presented by the Commission recently which showed that about 50% of all alerts concerned Chinese products. This is hardly a surprise, since China is the world's largest manufacturer, but the report also revealed that it was extremely difficult to identify the manufacturers or importers of such goods. What are BEUC's recommendations for dealing with the Chinese problem?
Normally, according to European legislation, the importer which brings goods into the EU should always be known. What we think is that there is no use of having sophisticated legislation existing at European level if there is no enforcement at EU borders. So there should be more cooperation between national supervision authorities, more means given to the enforcement authorities so that they can block it. Once it is on the market it is too late. There must be much more pre-entry checks before goods enter the European market.
Why are these controls not taking place?
Not enough means. You know how many tonnes arrive every day into Antwerp or into Hamburg or into the airports, but we just don’t have enough people to work on this. Most of the time it happens by accident, when they fall on a container in which there are problems with the imported product.
Would you recommend a country-specific approach for China, for example?
The problem is the rerouting. If something comes from India, you are not sure whether it in fact came from China.
More generally, it is normal that China accounts for 50% of the problems because most of the production is located there. Most of the RAPEX problems are toys and electric appliances. And 80% of world toys are produced in China, so it’s normal that 50% at least of the problems come from there.
There is also a memorandum of understanding between the EU, the US and China. And the Chinese authorities have agreed to reinforce their own controls, which is better, because it prevents problematic goods from going out of the country in the first place. But of course this takes time to put in place.
On the e-commerce issue, you said there were also traceability problems…
You have the street shops which sell on the Internet, like Fnac or Amazon: They are reputed brands. They have an address or a contact point.
But there are also less reliable traders on the Web. And sometimes you pay and you never get the goods delivered, and if you complain against this trader, you can’t find him, because the website can be closed, or doesn’t give any address.
For e-commerce platforms such as eBay or Price Minister, they are not liable for organising contacts between the buyer and the seller. Sometimes, sellers use pseudos or aliases, so how can you know who you are buying from? Sometimes, it is only at the very end that you get information about the location of the seller.
Also, when buying online, you often give your data and credit card details. And if something goes wrong…
Would you recommend that these sites would be more strictly regulated at EU level in the e-Commerce Directive?
Yes, of course. Digital rights for consumers is one of our main headline objectives at BEUC, because we realised that digital consumers don’t have the same rights as physical consumers. Firstly, you have all the problems of data protection when you buy on the Internet. Your data are worth a huge amount of money and you just give it away for free. You sometimes just don’t realise what’s being done with your data, and that’s the first point.
The second point is the fairness of contract terms. If you go to a bookshop for example, you buy a book, you read it, you sell it second-hand and it is totally legal. But if you download a book, you pay for it, you give it away to somebody, and that’s considered illegal! Why? For you as a consumer, it is the same process.
This is a problem of copyright, intellectual property. And I realise it is not easy to address this problem, but there really is a gap in copyright legislation, and for the moment, the policy trend is to address this gap in a consumer-unfriendly way. And this is something we cannot accept, because everything is done by marketers, by sellers and by the technology to push consumers to go on the Internet and download music, information or culture. And they should not be penalised for that.
The problem is that whatever regulation is agreed now will probably stay on for a long time. And for the moment, it’s really against people’s interests. There is no difference between pirates and private consumers who are not necessarily aware of what they are doing online. Sometimes you’re being asked to click "I agree" and you don’t know what you have agreed to. Everybody does it, because these texts are too long and too legalistic, and so people click 'yes' without knowing what they have committed to. This should not be the case.
Are you pushing for specific wording to be introduced in the legislation to address this issue?
In the consumer rights proposal, we asked for the introduction of some specific provisions that would tackle part of the digital consumer problem. For example, in the consumer rights proposal, there are information requirements. One of the information requirements which could be added is about the interoperability limits of digital devices. Because people simply don’t know that if they buy for example an iPod or download iTunes, they can only use Apple devices. People should know that they are committing, and that they will not be able to use other brands.
In France, the government is trying to get a law adopted – the Hadopi law – that would see illegal downloads penalised. After the third warning, their Internet connection could be cut off…
I hope for the sake of democracy that it is not going to happen. Let me give a real-life example. I have a WIFI connection in my house and I have three computers with my kids. My son is 21 – I’m not responsible for him. But if he downloads something illegally, it’s my WIFI which is going to be disconnected.
This is not acceptable on legal terms, because I did nothing wrong. Moreover, it is the Internet provider who has to do the job. To draw a comparison, if you drive too fast on the French highway, is it the private owner – the highway – that should give you a fine? No, it is the police.
So online, it would be like turning the Internet provider into a private police force. And more fundamentally, decisions over what is legal and what is illegal cannot be made by a party. It is a judge who has to take the decision. We understand that there is a problem with online copyright, and we expect artists to make money from their work. But there should be another solution. And cutting the connection is the easy solution.
Are you holding talks with some of the music companies or rights’ holders to find common ground or a solution that is acceptable to consumers and rights-holders' organisations?
The problem with rights-holders’ organisation, as I often say, is that the technology is of the 21st century, the legislation is of the 19th century and the rights-holders organisations are of the Middle Ages. And they are very well-organised. When they come to lobby the Commission, they come with Mick Jagger or Charles Aznavour. And these artists are certainly not the ones who are most in need of the money coming from downloading.
For the moment, we have had more contact with Internet service providers, which have a big problem with the downloading issue, as it’s not their job to police the Web. We have two experts working on this at the moment, but it is very difficult to engage in real constructive dialogue with the music industry.
We believe a lot in alternative business models. I really believe in the creativity of European industry, and I really think that for the moment, it is not using its creativity to find a good solution to this problem.
You talk about new business models. Are there good examples which could be replicated?
Well, there are technical possibilities not to download illegally. Those could be explored. Some of the artists have also decided that they wouldn’t be making money anymore from the music they put on the Internet, but that they would make money out of the concerts.
iTunes is offering the possibility to pay for the song that you want, as you can listen 20 seconds of the music before making a decision. But the price of some downloads are often so expensive that you sometimes had better go to the shop to buy the physical device.
Some go as far as saying that record companies have become unnecessary intermediaries between the artists and the public, and that they should simply disappear…
That’s the problem. It is very refreshing to see that artists are being discovered now just because they put something on the Internet. That’s really creativity. That makes a difference with the majors. That also brings variety to our cultural richness.
So you are saying that the French approach goes against creativity, just as we are having a European Year of Creativity and Innovation…
I wonder if there has been an impact assessment on this proposal, because I would really like to know who is going to win out of that. I would really like to know from rights-holders organisations like SABAM and SACEM how much money the small and poorer artists will get out of such a law. But they don’t want to tell us. This is secret.