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Language use in consumer information
Language use is dealt with in various provisions of Community law. These provisions can be very strict, for example when it comes to potentially dangerous products. The legislation on language use aims to inform consumers properly and promote multilingual information, whilst guaranteeing Member States' freedom in language matters.
Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament, of 10 November 1993, concerning language use in the information of consumers in the Community [COM(93) 456 final - Not published in the Official Journal].
In this Communication, the Commission points out that consumers have a right to information on the qualities and characteristics of products and services on the market.
The Communication surveys existing national and Community legislation relating to language requirements in the field of consumer information. Areas covered are:
- instructions for use;
- assembly instructions;
- precautions regarding employment or use;
- any warning intended for the final user of the product or service.
In addition, the Communication puts forward a number of ideas for strengthening consumer information.
Depending on the subject matter in question and the objectives envisaged, the provisions of existing Community legislation are very diverse. In some cases the wording explicitly specifies the use of languages. This is the case with wine, the placing on the market of medicinal products, and tobacco labelling. In other cases the wording requires Member States to lay down rules. This is the case with foodstuffs labelling and nutrition labelling, which must be provided in a language "easily understood" by the buyer. In some cases the question of languages is not mentioned at all (e.g. misleading advertising, consumer credit), or it is left up to Member States to impose language requirements (e.g. toy safety, cosmetic products).
While some attempt at harmonisation has been made in the technical harmonisation directives concerning certain industrial products, there does not seem to have been a systematic approach in Community legislation as regards language use. This can sometimes lead to problems of interpretation, notably when references are made to a "language easily understood" by the consumer.
This absence of consistency is partly due to the variety of domains covered (foodstuffs, cosmetic products, package holidays, toy safety, financial services, etc). It is also due to the limits laid down in the EEC Treaty, since the provisions concerning language requirements may be considered a barrier to the free movement of products or services. A balance therefore needs to be found between the safeguarding of free movement and the safety and health of consumers. A simplification of the Community provisions relating to language requirements is also desirable.
The approaches adopted by the Member States are varied, since language problems are not identical in all Member States. However, more than half of the Member States have considered it necessary to inform the consumer in his own language.
On the other hand, in cases where Community legislation gives Member States the option of stipulating language requirements in favour of consumers, this option is generally not very well taken up.
The Communication emphasises that information which is difficult to understand or read may have serious repercussions for the health or safety of the consumer. Foodstuffs are a good example: in the case of persons with allergies or diabetes or restricted to a particular diet, failure to understand the labelling may have serious health consequences. Similarly, an incomplete translation of operating instructions can make the use of electrical appliances dangerous.
The Communication also points out that all consumer categories are concerned, including children, who may not necessarily know foreign languages.
The analysis presented in the Communication leads the Commission to propose a balanced approach, and one which must take into account:
- the competence of the Member States in defining national rules in this domain;
- the rules of the Treaty on European Union and the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Community(CJEC);
- the legitimate right of consumers to receive the most exhaustive possible information on the products and services offered to them.
In the context of this new approach, the Commission proposes the following five themes for discussion:
- encourage multilingual information;
- preserve the freedom of Member States to require use of the language of the country of consumption;
- improve the consistency of the Community legal instruments in regard to the use of languages in the domain of consumption;
- improve information of the Commission, the Member States and the operators on the applicable language rules;
- assign responsibility to the economic operators (producers, distributors).
The Community legislator encourages the use of multilingual information, in accordance with the case law (see the judgment in the "Peeters" case for the marketing of foodstuffs and case C-33/97/2 on the labelling of goods).
It also takes the view that the national law of a Member State must allow the use of a foreign expression on a product label if this informs consumers better or if the term in question exists only in the language of origin (Answer of 20 January 2003 given by Frits Bolkestein on behalf of the Commission to written question P-3785/02 from Bruno Gollnish MEP).