Consumer group warns against e-commerce overhaul

A new withholding tax on online sales would hit online business of retailers, the fastest growing division over the last years. [Pexels]

A draft bill to give e-commerce shoppers the same rights everywhere in the EU could face a drastic overhaul in negotiations with the European Parliament and national governments—and consumer advocates are worried.

The proposal to regulate online shoppers’ rights is still trudging through three-way negotiations between the EU institutions. Diplomats from the member states will meet after the summer break to weigh in on whether they want to force new major changes in the planned consumer rules.

So far, it’s mostly the Parliament that has been asking for changes to the bill. The MEP who has shepherded the legislation through the legislature wants the same consumer protection rules to also apply to any items bought offline. That would introduce a mandatory warranty lasting at least two years for all products bought online.

The European Commission has signalled that it’s open to an overhaul. EU Justice Commissioner Věra Jourová told diplomats last month that she would accept a sweeping change to apply her proposal to offline purchases but she rejected suggestions that the Commission should withdraw it and come up with a new version of the bill.

“The Commission would welcome that the European Parliament and the Council present amendments towards such an extension,” Jourová wrote in a 31 July letter to national delegations.

But a totally new proposal would “not be time-efficient” and would only get in the way of wrapping up all of the Commission’s pending single market legislation by next year, she wrote.

The executive is under pressure to finish negotiating the legislation it proposed by the time its current term ends in 2019.

String of e-commerce bills struggle to keep pace

One-and-a-half years after the European Commission proposed a string of new laws aimed at making it easier for e-commerce businesses to sell and for customers to buy across the EU, negotiations on those bills are trudging ahead at different speeds.

Consumer advocates are concerned that any changes to the e-commerce bill could lower safeguards that are already in place.

If the draft rules are changed to also apply to all offline sales, some EU countries might be forced to weaken their national consumer protection laws to comply with the new two-year legal warranty period.

“Unfortunately, what could happen here is that consumers in many countries lose the rights they have become used to, like a three-year legal guarantee period in Sweden, a six-year period in Ireland or the right against hidden defects in Belgium, Luxembourg or France,” said Agustin Reyna, a senior legal officer at BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.

“It only makes sense to extend the reach of this proposal to offline sales if consumers are not sold down the river,” he added.

E-commerce retailers that have pushed for the draft rules to apply to both on and offline sales argue the change will only help consumers.

“What you will ‘lose’ in consumer protection, you can compensate with full harmonisation of the rules,” said Luca Cassetti, a policy advisor at Ecommerce Europe, a lobby group whose members include Amazon as well as smaller retailers.

“If you have fragmented rules there will be a lower level of protection,” Cassetti said.

Pascal Arimont, the Belgian centre-right MEP who authored the Parliament’s draft of the online sales bill, has put pressure on the Commission and national governments to change the proposal. He said in a recent interview that he hopes other MEPs’ amendments to his report create new consumer rules that apply to all online and offline sales—but still maintain high levels of protection. Arimont’s report has not yet been voted on in the Parliament.

“If we have one set of rules for the three kinds of sales, a consumer doesn’t have to ask himself, ‘What am I doing right now, which one of the three laws do I have to comply with?,” Arimont told earlier this summer.

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