Ministers meeting at an EU Competitiveness Council last week backed compromise proposals tabled by the Belgian EU Presidency aimed at drawing up "common consumer rights" across the European Union and bringing together existing EU legislation into a single Consumer Rights Directive.
Current EU legislation on consumer protection is spread across four separate directives (see 'Background').
By the European Commission's own admission, this has led to "a patchwork of laws" and "a maze of different rights and practices […] which are as unclear to consumers as they are confusing for business".
Member states are currently debating a proposed new Consumer Rights Directive, submitted by the Commission in 2008, which seeks to simplify and complete the existing legislation to ensure a high level of consumer protection and improve the functioning of the internal market.
The draft directive seeks to harmonise rules on consumer rights for contracts concluded between traders and consumers in distance selling and off-premises sales.
It is also hoped that the new directive will boost the confidence of traders and consumers when carrying out cross-border transactions over the Internet.
The Belgian EU Presidency presented ministers meeting for a Competitiveness Council on Friday (10 December) with a "global compromise text" regarding the draft directive on consumer rights.
Consumer groups angry
Belgium stood accused by consumer groups of watering down consumer protection law in its rush to secure a deal before its presidency draws to a close at the end of the year.
EU consumer group BEUC warned that under the Belgian plan, which had "transformed" the Commission's draft, many of the new directive's provisions will be deleted and the remainder changed to urge full harmonisation of consumer rights across the European Union.
According to BEUC, the Belgian plan "will do little to improve consumer protection in the EU, in some cases could reduce national protections and would prohibit member states from enacting further legislation in future".
Defenders of consumer rights are opposed to full harmonisation because they fear that citizens in countries with more stringent consumer protection laws than the adopted EU standard will see their rights reduced.
Governments are expected to formally approve the new "general approach"discussed on Friday when ministers convene for an EU Environment Council on 20 December.
A deal then would pave the way for the issue to be debated in the European Parliament's internal market and consumer protection (IMCO committee) in January ahead of a vote in plenary scheduled for March 2011.