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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
Consumers in an Enlarged European Union - The Road Ahead
Consumer General Assembly 2003
Brussels, 28 October 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Once again, it a pleasure for me to address the annual consumer assembly.
This is the last general assembly before we welcome 10 new Member States into the European Union.
As you have seen from the programme, we have taken this into account by devoting considerable time to enlargement issues.
Yesterday's round table discussion, for delegates from new Member States, was one such opportunity. And today and tomorrow, you will be working together, consumers from current and future Member States, to reflect on what the transition will bring, and how we can maximise the potential of the accession process.
I am sure that these two days will bring fruitful discussions and thus contribute to the preparations as the big day draws ever closer.
I will use this opportunity to set out my perspective on the linked themes of enlargement and the development of EU consumer policy.
I want to focus on two main areas first, how to improve the involvement and consequently the impact of consumer organisations, and second, the contribution of consumers to a competitive economy.
Better involvement of consumer organisations
Accession to the EU is a huge step. Enormous efforts have been made by accession countries to ensure that they meet the requirements to enable them to participate fully from the start to hit the ground running.
In the specific area of consumer policy, governments in the accession countries have already taken on board most of what we call the consumer policy “acquis” into their legislation. A truly impressive amount of work has been done.
But we all know that legislation and rules are only the first step towards the successful application of consumer policy. Reality demands much more in particular, appropriate enforcement and appropriate involvement of consumers in their own affairs.
A stronger voice for consumers
As Commissioner for Heath and Consumer Protection, I attach great importance to the active involvement of consumer representatives in policy-making. I attach the same importance to the processes that determine how consumers will fare in our increasingly complex markets.
One of the main objectives of our Consumer Policy Strategy is to ensure precisely “an appropriate involvement of consumer organisations in policy-making”.
In line with this objective, the Consumer Assembly, and the consultation processes we run throughout the year, serve to ensure that we do not miss a trick. We also need to ensure that our proposals for legislation or other initiatives are in tune with what the market, that is, consumers and business, demands.
The European Consumers' Consultative Group
Furthermore, for the first time, the European Consumer Consultative Group (most of you know them as the Consumer Committee) will report to this year's General Assembly on their past and future activities.
In revising the Group's set-up, membership and operating procedures ahead of enlargement, we wanted to make sure that this important forum remains an efficient and effective tool for communication between Consumer representatives and the Commission. It must be a solid and permanent co-ordination platform to ensure that consumer interests are properly represented in all policy areas.
At Member State level
Processes and structures through which Consumers are closely involved in policy-making exist, of course, not only at EU level.
Most of the current Member States have put in place systems through which consumer organisations are involved in discussions on, and implementation of, consumer policy. The Conseil National de la consommation in France, for example or the National Consumer Councils in the UK and in Italy.
These bodies, like the Consumer Assembly and the Consumer Committee at EU level, can pick up where government bodies leave off. Most notably they can signal whether the existing consumer rules are effective in practice. Or they can identify problems that need to be addressed.
Such mechanisms are extremely important. They provide a proper and structured basis for the representation of consumer organisations in policy-making.
The first key message I want to give you today is this: ensure that consumers are actively involved both at policy level, and on the ground.
Consumer policy cannot be made through state bodies alone. Today's society demands that policy makers must be in permanent communication with, and rely solidly on, stakeholders.
Stakeholders themselves, however, have to be in a position to defend their interests, to be visible. They need to develop their expertise and to be able to give the right advice at the right moment.
For this, they need to be independent, and to have the resources that their tasks require. I know that achieving this is far from easy. This subject will be addressed in detail by this Assembly.
Support at EU level
At EU level, apart from providing platforms from which consumers can express their views, we also provide financial and other support. We give operational support to the European level organisations, and support for projects for organisations in the Member States. We also organise training and education for consumer representatives with the aim of ensuring that they can fulfil their role as stakeholders on the EU stage.
Specific actions aimed at the New Member States
The proposed new financial framework for consumer policy actions also includes provisions explicitly designed to help consumer organisations in the future Member States.
Since April of this year, representatives from NGOs of future Member States have had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with Community structures and procedures. They have attended meetings of the European Consumer Consultative Group.
Under the new financial framework for consumer policy 2004-2007, to be finally adopted shortly, national consumer organisations will also be able to participate in training courses and other capacity building actions.
They will be able to receive subsidies for specific projects in support of consumer policy objectives. We have ensured that the EU financial contribution for such projects undertaken by consumer organisations in new Member States can be up to 70% instead of the standard 50% for actions that promote implementation of the consumer acquis.
And we are planning information campaigns on consumer rights, which will benefit consumers and consumer organisations in the new Member States. This includes actions such as the school agenda on consumer issues, which we are currently preparing.
Finally, there is the new Transition Facility 2004-2006, set up on the same principles as practised under PHARE during the pre-accession period. This Transition Facility is an EU fund to help the new Member States address the continued need for strengthening institutional capacity in certain areas, such as the Internal Market.
The role of Consumer Organisations
We need strong and independent consumer organisations for the development and effective implementation of consumer policy.
They provide expertise, first-hand knowledge about the situation of consumers, company behaviour and the effect of policy. We need them as an essential counterbalance to the representatives of business organisations.
In order for them to be able to play their role effectively, they have to be in a position to do so. They must be able to fulfil a role in market surveillance, for example, to be able to signal and point out business behaviour which is detrimental to consumers.
They must be able to inform consumers, and to act at all levels, local, national, and EU.
Crucially, consumer organisations must be given the means to act effectively both in terms of resources, and in terms of strengthening their expertise and capacity.
Support and development of consumer organisations is not a luxury. It is a prerequisite of a well-oiled consumer policy machine.
Use your opportunities to build the participation of consumers in your societies into the political system.
This leads me to the second main area on which I will focus today. Adequate participation of consumers in society is not only a political requirement it also makes perfect economic sense.
Consumers are a formidable market force. They represent, to a very large extent, the demand side of the market. Everything that producers produce, at the end of the day, they produce for consumers.
Consumer Satisfaction means increased competitiveness
So, consumer satisfaction is crucial, but not only that: consumer optimism and consumer willingness to look beyond their immediate environment for the best product, or simply the best deal, can add enormously to the development and growth of the economy.
We are currently engaged in an exercise that aims to strengthen the competitiveness of the European economy the so-called Lisbon agenda.
The way in which we redefine this agenda will be crucial for the future of the European economy, particularly after enlargement.
I am actively involved in this process for the simple reason that without adequate consumer policy we would only be looking at half the picture.
Consumer policy in the Lisbon Strategy
The key point here is this: consumer policy is one of the key means to achieving growth and competition, through consumer confidence and the creation of a level playing field for consumers and businesses alike.
In a well-functioning market consumers who dislike a product will turn to another one, punishing the producer who has not fulfilled their expectations, and rewarding those who are in tune with their demands.
This is what increases competition, and competitiveness. Competition policy helps to meet this objective by prohibiting industry behaviour that unduly restricts markets. But this is not enough to correct all market failures. Individual consumers on their own cannot always detect rogue traders, or identify defective products in terms of risks, quality and price.
A reliable Internal Market
Consumers must feel confident in buying in the Internal Market, be aware of the range of products on offer across borders, and of their rights in case of deceptive or fraudulent behaviour.
Consumers must be able to make informed choices as to the products they purchase. Consumer legislation must guarantee this right, safeguarding consumers against businesses that act unfairly.
In other words, liberalisation of market sectors, removing restrictions on the supply side is good because it strengthens competition. This in turn improves the availability and price-quality ratio of products for consumers.
But it is not enough. It requires the support of actions taken on the demand side such as policies and actions that safeguard the interests of consumers.
A good example of this is the area of Services of General Interest utilities and essential services. Most would agree that reform and liberalisation must include strong provisions to protect consumer interests.
Our role at EU level is thus to define a sound consumer protection policy which will foster cross-border transactions throughout the Union. It will put empowered consumers at the heart of the internal market, as requested at the Brussels European Council of March 2003.
An example of the role of EU consumer legislation
A case in point which demonstrates the important role that Consumer Policy has to play from in strengthening competition in the Internal Market is the Commission proposal for a framework directive on unfair commercial practices.
This proposal aims to increase consumer confidence in the internal market. It will stimulate cross-border shopping by reducing the current fragmentation in consumer protection legislation.
Once adopted and implemented, this instrument will boost cross border transactions. This will benefit legitimate businesses. They will no longer have to adjust their business model to suit the divergent national legislation as cross-border advertising and marketing become the norm.
SMEs, who cannot afford the research and compliance costs needed to adjust to various national markets, will have the opportunity to grow and to develop in the other Member States.
For the industry, the framework directive will result in a single predictable legal environment, valid throughout the entire Union.
The road ahead
EU Consumer Policy needs to progress further. It needs to become an integral part of the EU's efforts to increase competition, and to drive the Internal Market forward.
New paths which we are exploring include:
We are hard at work, as our action plan shows, to hammer out a solid approach to contract law.
We are actively co-operating with our colleagues in other Commission services to ensure that the consumer aspect of the Single Market is fully taken on board in areas such as Industrial Policy, and the forthcoming proposal focussing on strengthening the Internal Market in the area of services.
At grass roots level, we have the networks of European Consumer Centres and the Clearinghouses of the European Extra-Judicial network. We are currently considering how we can increase complementarity and maximise their efficiency. And of course we will extend the networks to the new Member States.
We have also started a review of the rolling plan of actions, which is the practical reflection of what the Consumer Policy Strategy aims for in political terms. We have asked Member States to contribute to this review.
The empowered consumer
Allow me to leave you with a final thought that of the consumer as a market force and as a market player. Consumers who know their rights, who have a role to play, and who contribute to our economy and its competitiveness.
The aim is “to have an empowered consumer at the heart of a competitive internal market”.
Your role as consumer representatives is invaluable in this respect and we are here to make sure you can play your part to the full.
I wish you all a very successful assembly.