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Making European consumer legislation fit for the digital age should not mean forfeiting the high level of protection granted to consumers in Europe, stressed consumers organisations at the Consumer Summit in Brussels on 28 November. Business organisations, particularly SMEs, on the other hand, expressed concerns over the burdens imposed by a collective redress directive they saw as being geared to GAFAS and large multinationals.
The summit was co-organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Commission to round off a series of national consumer dialogues organised in 27 Member States. These dialogues, which took place over the past seven months, aimed to engage with stakeholders on the proposed New Deal for consumers. The event brought together a large number of national authorities, businesses and consumer associations as well as EESC members, Commission representatives and MEPs.
Discussions focused on the Commission's proposed reforms to adapt EU consumer legislation to the digital age: the "omnibus" directive, introducing collective redress in Europe, and the directive on improved enforcement. The event also focused on identifying crucial challenges for the years to come.
Opening the conference, EESC President Luca Jahier stressed the EESC's continued focus on consumer policy:
When we talk about sustainability, premature obsolescence, dual-quality products and the rights of consumers in the digital economy, you will find the active voice of the EESC championing the way forward: for an empowered consumer, for a competitive business environment to serve those consumers, and for future-proof laws to protect EU citizens, he said.
Presenting the New Deal, European Commissioner for Consumers Věra Jourová said:
Europe has the strongest consumer rules in place and digitalisation has also brought exciting new opportunities, but you are all well aware that we still have a job to do to level the odds between unfair traders and consumers, she said,
By giving consumers a credible, yet controlled, means of defending their interests against large players, we are providing a transparent regulatory environment for consumers and businesses in the Single Market.
Many speakers agreed that consumer policy was one of the EU's key successes. Antonio Longo, co-rapporteur of the EESC opinion on the New Deal for consumers, said:
Any modernisation, better implementation or harmonisation of consumer legislation must not lower the level of consumer protection - which is the result of decades of struggles in all European countries and at European level, though this needs to be combined with legal certainty for businesses.
Right of withdrawal as the foundation of consumer confidence
Consumer organisations said the right of withdrawal, whereby products bought online can be returned within 14 days, must remain untouched, as it was the only legal right that consumers were really aware of, with 90% of them regarding it as the number one achievement of consumer policy in the past decade.
Scrapping or diluting it, as the Commission was proposing to do, would go against the objective of encouraging consumer confidence. Abuse must indeed be combated, but placing the burden of proof on consumers, as the proposal did, was not fair and was out of proportion with the actual size of the problem of buyers returning used goods.
Collective redress: a good beginning
Consumer organisations welcomed the long-awaited collective redress directive, which addresses "mass harm situations" such as the often-mentioned Dieselgate, but viewed it only as a first step in the right direction. Much remained to be done to persuade businesses that the new mechanism would be fully embedded in European legal tradition and would not introduce US-style class actions and a culture of litigation. Above all, it was important to ensure that consumers had easy and affordable access to redress.
Think small first
On the other hand, businesses stressed that a great majority of them operate fairly and that the new rules would end up penalising small businesses – which represent 90% of companies and 2/3 of private-sector employment in Europe – rather than huge corporations such as the GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). They questioned whether the blunt instrument used – penalties of 4% of turnover or higher – could be considered proportional.
Future proofing the New Deal
With consumers relying more and more on peer reviews in making their choices online, many speakers stressed the urgency of ensuring the transparency of e-commerce platforms and of finding ways to protect consumers from hidden influences – e.g. fake reviews extolling the merits of products and services. France's practice of requiring potential reviewers to specify the date of purchase and use of product/service was described as a best practice.
In addition, boosting enforcement, bringing sustainable consumption into the picture and harmonisation were singled out as the issues that were most likely to jump to the fore in the next five to ten years.