Whether a chain of lights or a washing machine, whenever European citizens buy a product in another EU country, they can be sure that this product meets a number of safety requirements laid down in an EU directive, and they can receive compensation in the event that it has technical defects. Today, consumers in the EU have a wide range of rights under the European Union’s consumer protection policy.
This policy is closely bound up with the European single market and is based on a simple idea. Just like products that are transported from one country to another thanks to the single market, consumer rights must also be cross-border in scope. Consumers who buy a product or obtain digital content or services from another European country must be protected and enjoy the same rights vis-à-vis traders.
This objective was not envisaged in the treaties of 1957 establishing the European Economic Community. At that time, consumers were not perceived as individuals whose rights needed to be defended. Rather they were primarily seen as indirect beneficiaries of the single market, benefiting, for example, from price reductions and the broader selection of products thanks to the free movement of goods.
The establishment of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) in Brussels in 1962 was a first important step towards achieving a change in mentality and the development of a European consumer policy. Since its foundation, BEUC, with its 44 consumer organisations from 32 European countries, has advised the European Commission and promoted the interests of consumers vis-à-vis the European Union.
At the Paris European Summit in 1972, the heads of state and government held discussions for the first time about the need to introduce a policy benefiting consumers. The Commission subsequently presented an action programme that listed a series of rights, including the right to protection of health and safety and the right to protection of consumers’ economic interests.
However, it was not until the Maastricht Treaty, which came into force in 1993, that consumer policy was incorporated into the treaties and thus declared to be a genuine Community policy. In 1997, its scope was laid down in the Treaty of Amsterdam, which set out the objectives as follows:
“In order to promote the interests of consumers and to ensure a high level of consumer protection, the Community shall contribute to protecting the health, safety and economic interests of consumers, as well as to promoting their right to information, education and to organise themselves in order to safeguard their interests.”
In addition, the Treaty stipulated that consumer interests must be taken into account when defining and implementing all other Community policies, whether transport policy or agricultural policy (what is known as the “horizontal dimension”).
Consumer policy is underpinned by an increasingly comprehensive legal framework and is also based on five-year action plans that are commonly referred to as the “Consumer Agenda”. In May 2012, the Commission presented its EU Consumer Agenda, in which it outlined its strategic approach to consumer protection for the coming years. On 13 November, it presented its New Consumer Agenda for the period after 2020 until 2025. Alongside the European Parliament, European associations and the member states, the Commission sees itself as a driving force behind strengthening consumer rights.
A Europe that serves consumers: the most important progress made
One of the main focuses of the EU’s work to benefit consumers is helping to protect their economic interests.
- The Union prohibits unfair business-to-consumer commercial practices such as aggressive sales methods or misleading advertising.
- A further right is the fact that all Europeans who have purchased a product or service on the internet have a right of withdrawal. For a period of 14 days, they can cancel their purchases.
- One of the best-known measures is the abolition of roaming charges. Since the summer of 2017, Europeans no longer have to pay additional charges when making calls, sending text messages or using mobile internet services while travelling within the European Union.
- The Union has also strengthened the rights of air passengers. In the event of cancellation, delayed arrival or being denied boarding (e.g. overbooking of the flight), they are entitled to reimbursement or alternative transport and, if necessary, compensation. These rights apply to flights operated by an EU airline and to flights departing from an airport in an EU member state, the UK, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland.
New challenges: the digital transformation, climate change and COVID-19
The European Union’s consumer protection policy is facing new challenges today. It must face up to the impacts of climate change, the digital transformation, and now also the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the governments of all EU member states have had the difficult task of reconciling consumer interests with business interests. In the aviation sector, it is particularly important to strike a balance between the interests of the airlines whose existence is threatened by the collapse of the air transport market caused by the pandemic and passengers who want to be reimbursed for the ticket price paid in advance in the event of flight cancellations caused by the pandemic. Another major challenge in the digital transformation is the regulation governing liability for digital platforms. How can we ensure that the products offered by these platforms actually conform to EU standards? Moreover, in the case of climate change, extending the lifespan of products is another focus. Should companies be obliged to offer repairable products?
Germany has set itself a number of priorities during its Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the light of these challenges. First of all, the European Commission should be assisted in fleshing out the New Consumer Agenda. In the area of the digital transformation, Germany wants consumers to have more rights in the area of software updates. It also intends to work to improve relations between the EU and third countries in order to oblige digital platforms that sell cosmetic products in Europe, for example, to comply with European standards. Together with its partners in the EU, Germany wants to work towards making technical products more user-friendly. This aspect should already be taken into account when a product is developed in order to simplify its use.
Germany is working closely with Portugal and Slovenia to this end. Together, the three countries make up what is known as the Trio Presidency. The joint paper entitled “Consumer protection in Europe – Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic” was signed on 16 October.
All of these issues will be on the agenda of the informal videoconference of EU ministers for consumer protection to be held in Berlin on 7 December 2020.