Brussels lacks a "clear vision or strategy" on consumer rights legislation, Ursula Pachl, deputy director-general of European consumer group BEUC, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Debate on improving consumer protection in the EU has reached an impasse, with opinions divided as to whether full or minimum harmonisation of legislation across the bloc's 27 member states is the way to go.
"What's currently missing is a clear vision or strategy on how consumer legislation should evolve in the European Union," said Pachl.
The original goal of the Consumer Rights Directive was to fully harmonise consumer protection law throughout the Union, but after this proved unviable the European Commission devised a so-called 'optional instrument' instead, Pachl recalls. "There's no strategy behind it," she said.
Just before Christmas, the Belgian EU Presidency surprised BEUC by "basically deleting" half of the Consumer Rights Directive in an effort to secure a deal on the law before the end of its term at the EU helm.
"It was a difficult situation," she said, "because some member states just didn't want to risk any kind of decrease of consumer rights in their country, whereas others didn't want to see any kind of minimal harmonisation".
To break the deadlock, Belgium decided to push for full harmonisation of laws in all 27 member states, deleting parts of the directive where it felt that could not be achieved, such as unfair contract terms.
"More discussion and deliberation on how to move forward" would have been a better idea, Pachl said, explaining that BEUC would prefer to see a "mixed harmonisation approach" with full harmonisation wherever possible and approximation in other areas.
Nevertheless, she expressed optimism that the European Parliament would restore a higher level of consumer protection when it debates the legislation in the coming weeks.
Turning her attention to the new European Commission, Pachl said "it's not very positive" that consumer policy, which used to be a portfolio in its own right and was dealt with by Meglena Kuneva, "is now […] scattered around between different commissioners".
In 2011, the Commission is expected to hold a consultation on establishing a collective redress system for European consumers.
But Pachl is sceptical about what impact a new consultation will have. "We've already had at least three consultations on this issue and it's been around for 10 years," she said, adding that constant postponement by the Commission of plans to introduce a collective redress system proves that "there is a lot of lobbying from business going on".
"Evidence has been delivered many times that this would be a very meaningful tool for consumers," she said, while "no business has suffered bankruptcy after being sued under the collective redress procedure".
Pachl also urged the Commission to do more this year to boost cross-border online commerce. Sales remain low despite the huge potential offered by the Internet, and 61% of all cross-border attempts to make online purchases are rejected.
The EU executive always puts this down to differences between national laws, Pachl said. But she believes consumers' reluctance to buy online from other countries is instead related to problems with credit cards not being accepted, data protection concerns and copyright law governing digital content, which is still dominated by the idea of territoriality.