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.
“It is high time for the European institutions to get a little bit closer to Europe’s citizens,” Goyens said. “The elections would bring a unique opportunity to show to people that they are being cared for at European level.”
Voter turnout has been one of the main concerns regarding the upcoming European elections, with latest polls suggesting that participation could fall to an all-time low in the 4-7 June poll (EURACTIV 15/04/09).
The EU’s complex decision-making procedures and lack of clear leadership is often cited as a central cause of its inability to connect with voters.
But BEUC believes consumer issues can provide a simple solution. This month, it urged candidate MEPs to defend consumer rights if they are elected, by signing a pact on issues ranging from energy, digital rights, financial services, food, and health and safety.
“We have defined eight priorities to which we would like candidate MEPs to sign up,” Goyens says. “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.”
This ‘pact’ between the Parliament and its consumers “addresses areas in which MEPs can act to make a real difference,” BEUC claims. “It is an agenda which we hope all parties and candidates will be able to support.”
However, Goyens shied away from supporting any political party for the elections, saying all major parties are potentially supportive depending on the issue at hand. “We are politically neutral,” she says. “We have friends everywhere.”
By the end of April, 30 candidate MEPs had signed up to the pact, but BEUC hopes many more will do so.
Financial services at the top of the agenda
Consumer issues in the banking and insurance sector were identified among the major emerging issues in the pact in the aftermath of the US sub-prime mortgage crisis, which triggered the ongoing global economic turmoil.
“Financial services wouldn’t have been at all such a high priority two years ago,” Goyens said. “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 strategy and the UK, for example, has allocated 40% of its resources to the issue.”
With the economic crisis likely to dominate the election campaign in most European countries, BEUC thinks the consumer agenda can offer concrete ideas for MEPs on the campaign trail.
“One of the lessons of the financial crisis is that people do not get independent and reliable financial advice,” Goyens says. “We think it would really be worthwhile exploring 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.”
Support for Kuneva’s work
Goyens also offered a positive assessment of Commissioner Kuneva’s two-year stint as the EU’s first full-time commissioner for consumer protection.
“Having a commissioner who is really devoted to consumer policy makes a real difference,” she says. “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.”
But her assessment of the Bulgarian commissioner was not all positive. The Consumer Rights Directive, tabled in October last year, aimed at harmonising consumer rights across the EU. But this has proved to be a bad idea, Goyens said.
“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.”
“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.”