Consumer rules should both protect consumers and help traders face disruption brought by booming e-commerce in Europe

European business and consumer representatives united in a lukewarm welcome of the Commission's proposed New Deal for Consumers at the European Economic and Social Committee's plenary session on 20 September. Taking a position on the package, the Committee wondered whether the New Deal does live up to its promise of making consumer legislation in Europe fit for the digital age. Focusing on the actual enforcement of existing consumer protection rules should have been a priority, in the EESC's view.

While welcoming the fact that the Commission has at long last overcome its uncertainty about collective redress, the EESC would have liked to go further in making group actions possible and accessible.

One of the shortcomings of the proposal is that no provisions are made for consumers to opt in or out of a collective redress action.

The EESC believes that the Commission should also tackle the issue of how to fund consumer and civil society organisations tasked with defending consumers' collective interests, asking Member States to support the creation of litigation funds.

The Committee believes that the Commission should have focused on the implementation of existing rules on product safety, market surveillance, unfair commercial practices and cooperation between the Commission and consumer authorities in the Member States.

The Committee is appreciative of some elements of the Commission's proposal. To extend consumer rights to all digital services, including apparently free digital services is a very welcome update, as is introducing specific criteria for dissuasive fines, amounting at to least up to 4% of the trader's turnover, against companies that infringe rules.

Measures to protect consumers against "dual quality", particularly in food products, are much needed to make consumers, some of whom feel treated like second-class citizens, feel equal across Europe.

EESC trader and consumer representatives, however, acknowledged that their views on specific issues could not be reconciled.

While traders are in favour of updating, simplifying and adapting pre-contractual information, consumers think that this would lower the level of protection.

On the right for consumer withdrawal from online contracts, businesses – particularly SMEs– are in favour of scrapping the obligations to accept goods bought online and returned after being used rather than simply tried out, and to provide reimbursement before they can inspect the returned good for damage. Consumers believe this proposal risks limiting consumer rights without evidence of the widespread abuse of such rights.

As for aggressive commercial practices, traders believe that giving Member States the power to limit door-step selling risks stigmatising an entire economic sector, and would like to see all aggressive practices targeted. Consumers support the measure if applied to well-defined categories of goods (pharmaceuticals, weapons) for health and safety reasons. (dm)