The EU executive has introduced a number of initiatives aimed at inspiring changes in consumer attitudes as well as boosting its popular image and stimulating debate on the future role of the EU.
Boosting the Commission's popular image
As well as its strategies to promote healthy lifestyles (like anti-smoking campaigns and the promotion of sensible alcohol consumption), encourage the adoption of eco-friendly behaviour and urge consumers to buy 'green' products, the Commission has launched the following citizen-oriented initiatives:
- Consumer rights and information
Aiming to make EU citizens better aware of their rights, the Commission held a European Consumer Day on 15 March 2008 to appeal to EU consumers to "take power back in their hands, to get informed and to use their power of comparison and of choice".
The initiative included conferences, exhibitions, consumer debates, online quizzes, school presentations, 'mobile info centres' and other activities "to get the message out that consumers should 'Know their Rights and Use their Rights'".
The Commission announced on 6 May 2008 that it intends to create an online information pool dealing with the rights of energy consumers - referred to as a 'European Energy Consumer Checklist' – ultimately constituting an online database on local and regional energy markets (EURACTIV 08/05/08). At the same time, it will set up a 'Citizens' Energy Forum', creating a platform for debating consumer protection issues between retail market stakeholders.
Similarly, the Commission's 'Agathe Power' website aims to raise awareness among EU citizens of their rights as energy consumers in the wake of the opening up of household energy markets to competition in July 2007. Users can click on an interactive map of Europe to access information on the state-of-play in their own country. The site also links to Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs' blog.
The EU executive also held a conference on 6 May 2008 on the promotion of the rights of energy consumers, which was streamed live over the Internet.
- 'Collective redress' for consumers
On 3 April 2008, the Commission announced it will propose corrective measures to address the legal and procedural obstacles which it believes are denying compensation to victims of antitrust violations, including businesses as well as consumers.
The EU executive suggests small businesses and individual consumers should be able to engage in 'collective redress', making it easier for small claimants to take action by allowing a large number of small claims to be bundled together and brought to court by a third-party representative, such as a recognised consumer organisation.
However, to avoid what EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes terms "the potential excesses of the US system," such collective redress could not take the form of class-action lawsuits by individual law firms.
EU Consumer Protection Commissioner Meglena Kuneva has also spoken out against the use of class-action lawsuits - viewed by many Europeans as aggressive and unscrupulous - as part of her plan to strengthen consumer rights (EURACTIV 12/11/07).
On 31 January 2008 the Commission announced its intention to carry out in-depth sectoral investigations in sectors "picked as risky in terms of malfunctioning for consumers" to identify the reasons behind the failures as part of its Consumer Market Watch process. If malfunctioning is confirmed, the Commission will propose appropriate corrective action (EURACTIV 01/02/08).
The first sectors to be scrutinised are the retail financial services and insurance industries. The EU executive will also seek to identify barriers to cross-border sales of tradeable consumer goods, particularly via the Internet. Examples include cameras, CDs and books.
- Mobile phone roaming charges
The Commission's flagship roaming regulation came into force on 1 August 2007 in time for the summer holidays, meaning holidaymakers had the EU executive to thank for being able to make cheaper calls home from the beach.
Accompanied by a widespread publicity campaign, at the time it was dismissed by mobile phone operators as being driven by the EU executive's "populist agenda" (EURACTIV 23/05/07, EURACTIV 08/06/07).
On 8 May 2008, the Commission threatened airlines with legal action if their websites continue to "mislead and rip off" European consumers (EURACTIV 09/05/08). The announcement of the new measures, despite not being due to enter into force until the autumn, came ahead of the busy summer holiday season.
The EU executive launched its first ' ticket sweep' in September 2007 to check that websites selling airline tickets are complying with European consumer protection laws, initial results of which were announced in November last year (EURACTIV 15/11/07).
Indeed, presenting the results of another on-the-spot check of major airlines, Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva announced in May 2009 that too many companies were still failing to comply with EU rules and called for the establishment of Europe-wide standards (EURACTIV 15/05/09).
Kuneva's demand that the airline industry "put its house in order" serves as another example of the EU executive choosing to publicise a consumer-friendly policy at an opportune moment.
- Product Safety Alert System
EU citizens can also keep track of consumer safety developments courtesy of the Commission, which puts online weekly overviews of products identified as dangerous and the measures taken to deal with them as part of its rapid alert system for consumer products – known as RAPEX .
The EU executive also produces online video clips for its website giving details of particular consumer safety initiatives or warnings.
Changing consumer behaviour
The Commission has also launched initiatives aimed at inspiring changes in consumer attitudes:
The 'How can you control climate change?' website is the Commission's attempt to encourage EU citizens to adopt environmentally-friendly lifestyles by means of a multimedia website providing practical tips on how to save energy and recycle. While primarily a citizens' advice site, it also provides information on how EU legislation itself is helping to combat climate change. This site's eye-catching, Flash-enhanced design differentiates it from the majority of the EU executive's webpages.
It also features quotes from popular culture figures like Michael Fish and KT Tunstall.
A 40-second animated film called 'Climate Change Superheroes' asserts that "Everyone Can Save The Planet". It is set to music and features a series of characters going about their daily lives in an environmentally-friendly manner (by recycling drinks cans and switching the television off standby, to give two examples).
EU communication tools:
The Commission is increasingly making use of the latest consumer marketing techniques and is applying them to its policymaking process by carrying out research to ascertain the expectations of EU citizens during the preparation of new initiatives.
The EU executive has been systematic in carrying out regular 'Eurobarometer' surveys of its citizens to analyse public opinion since 1973. These monitor "the evolution of public opinion" in EU countries on issues like enlargement, the environment and the euro and thus help the EU executive with "the preparation of texts, decision-making and the evaluation of its work," it says.
As well as testing the likely reaction to EU policy priorities, Eurobarometer surveys allow the Commission to justify its standpoint on any given proposal by claiming that their research shows public opinion is on their side.
- Campaigns driven by PR agencies
In a drive to professionalise its communications further, the Commission is also increasingly resorting to external public relations (PR) agencies.
Asked when the EU executive began sub-contracting work to the private sector, Communications Commissioner Margot Wallström's spokesperson Joseph Hennon told EURACTIV that "it is a permanent thing" which "all DGs have done over the years," whether to help organise events or produce brochures, leaflets and other material.
"The amount of work the Commission sub-contracts [to external agencies] varies from DG to DG," he said, adding that the EU executive particularly works with actors in the member states "because they have the local knowledge and expertise".
Asked whether the EU executive is increasingly sub-contracting communications and other work to external PR agencies, Hennon told EURACTIV that "it is not necessarily increasing". Instead the practice generally remains constant due to the repetitive nature of the EU executive's work, with many similar or identical events occurring each year, he explained, citing Green Week as an example.
The Commission does not have the manpower to organise and promote events of that scale by itself, he continued, thus "it is only natural" that it should contract external assistance.
In 2007, it launched a safer sex awareness campaign developed by a specialist public relations agency. Likewise the video communication for Green Week 2008 , which took place between 3-6 June, was developed externally.
The Commission also calls upon PR companies to put together exhibition stands for events such as last April's Seafood Exhibition organised by DG Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.
PR firms are also involved in the production of other campaigns, including the European Parliament's HIV/AIDS campaign and a dedicated web TV channel 'EuroparlTV', to be launched in June.
What's more, the European Parliament ran a climate change campaign, also developed by a PR firm, which took place on 4 May in Strasbourg and again on 7 June.
The EU executive's audiovisual media strategy , launched by Commission Vice President Margot Wallström on 25 April 2008, seeks to engage EU citizens in debating EU policies and help the media to provide them with more information in this regard (EURACTIV 25/04/08).
The strategy aims to "contribute to greater and more sustainable coverage of EU affairs," particularly by engaging more frequently with audiovisual media and ensuring there is more coverage of the EU institutions' activities on television.
In the meantime, the Commission intends to "double" the content-providing capacity of EU information service Europe by Satellite , commonly known as EbS. Wallström's initiative will also "encourage media professionals to devote more programmes to EU affairs". To counter Brussels commentators' claims that the EU news agenda is too "boring" to stimulate widespread public and media attention, the Commission will "encourage broadcasters to form and participate in European networks" and launch an EU events calendar.
Meanwhile, on 7 March 2008, the 'EU Consumer Policy – Briefing for Senior Broadcast Editors' event held by DG Health and Consumer Protection in partnership with Mostra was an "open dialogue" to "help the EC understand how to create better communication tools that would entice the media to further communicate the EC's role" here, particularly by identifying "key TV programmes".
The event also sought to "help the media learn how to capitalise on existing communication materials already at their disposal".