This article is part of our special report Vulnerable Consumers.
Europe’s consumer laws fail to protect the most vulnerable people, say member of the European Parliament who called for tougher measures to prevent senior citizens, children and the disabled from being victims of rip-offs or aggressive marketing.
With overwhelming support, the European Parliament has adopted a resolution last week (21 May), saying EU consumer legislation should give buyers an arsenal of rights and protections.
But MEPs say not enough has been done for those who face targeted online advertising or people who don’t have access to internet-based consumer information and complaints services.
In the resolution, prepared by Spanish MEP María Irigoyen Pérez (Socialists & Democrats), the Parliament notes that efforts to help those with disabilities “is clearly insufficient.”
“The Commission is aware of its present shortcomings and has focused its approach on information is focusing its efforts of consumers,” Pérez said during a Parliamentary debate in Strasbourg on 21 May, a day before the resolution was adopted by a show of hands.
She said such efforts fall short of protecting people who don’t have the ability “to assert themselves and sometimes to understand the information they receive,” or don’t know their rights “particularly when it comes to cross-border trade and e-commerce.”
However, the resolution also notes that the "diversity" of vulnerable situations "hinders a uniform approach and the adoption of a comprehensive legislative instrument".
"European legislation must address the problem of vulnerability among consumers as a horizontal task, taking into account consumers’ various needs, abilities and circumstances," the resolution said.
Patchwork of policies
Other MEPs have expressed concern that laws vary widely across the EU, noting that there is no standard on marketing alcohol and tobacco to children or young adults.
“Some countries have strict regulation and some have some liberal approaches, and I would like to see a common approach in Europe,” Emilie Turunen, a Danish MEP who serves as the Greens’ spokeswoman on the consumer committee, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Some food and beverage manufacturers have launched their own marketing standards that restrict advertising to young audiences and have enlisted support through organisations like the International food and Beverage Alliance.
John Dalli, the European commissioner for health and consumer matters, said the Commission’s new Consumer Agenda – unveiled on 22 May after the vote – would address some of the Parliament’s concerns.
“The Commission wholeheartedly agrees that it is important to address the vulnerability of consumers and this will be reflected in the Consumer Agenda,” he said.
The Pérez report is non-binding and presents the Parliament’s recommendations to the Commission’s Consumer Programme 2014-2020 as well as the Consumer Agenda. It was approved by the full Parliament on 22 May after being adopted by the consumer committee on 26 April.
Boosting the single market
Consumer protection has become a major focus for the EU executive and Parliament as a way to nudge wary Europeans to shop across borders and through the Internet. The Commission estimates that in 2010, 100 million Europeans – one-fifth the EU population – had problems with fraudulent sales or faulty products in the common market, putting a damper on expansion.
The Parliament approved on 15 November 2011 a broader resolution on consumer rights that defined vulnerable groups and a definition of those covered – the elderly, the needy as well as those with mental and physical disabilities.
One of the leading concerns of Pérez and other resolution advocates is that Europeans with limited access to the internet may be discouraged from seeking information – for instance, through the European Consumer Centres Network – or filing complaints through Web-based portals.
Amongst the other provisions in the resolution adopted the Parliament, MEPs:
- Recommend educational campaigns on diet and health aimed at children who, according to the resolution, may be exposed to targeted advertising from food and beverage companies.
- Urge members states to provide free services for vulnerable or disabled consumers who pursue alternative dispute resolution in the case of consumer complaints;
- Call for special services aimed at people with disabilities, including those who may not be able to hear or read information on their rights, and those who do not have computers.