European Commissioner for Health and Consumer
7th Annual Assembly of Consumer Associations
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Once again, I am pleased to welcome you all to our headquarters here in Brussels.
This is, in fact, the sixth occasion that I have had the honour of addressing this annual assembly of consumer organisations. I count myself as one of the true veterans of this event.
Only a couple of weeks ago, I had expected to have moved on by now – but I must say it’s very nice to be called back for an encore!
I would like to thank Ms van Gennip and Mr Whitehead for being our guests here this morning – and for helping us to set both the pace and the tone of our proceedings.
The theme we have chosen for this Assembly is “The future of consumer policy in the enlarged Europe” – and your discussions over the next two days will, I am sure, lead to some concrete and practical steps towards defining its shape.
This morning I would like to set the ball rolling by sharing with you a few brief thoughts on the valuable experience we have gained over the past five years, with a view to identifying possible directions for the years ahead.
Let me start by saying that we can all take pride in the important and significant progress we have made in establishing solid foundations on which to build.
Such progress was only possible thanks to the help and support of consumer organisations across Europe, and the constructive and fruitful co-operation the Commission developed with the European Parliament and the Member States, both “old” and “new”.
The main instrument that has enabled us to rise to the fast-evolving challenges of our political, economic and social systems is the definition of a long-term strategic approach to policy making in the consumer protection field.
Consumer Policy Strategy
At the start of my mandate, the Commission set out a comprehensive policy strategy for the period 2002-2006. The Strategy received strong support from the Council and the European Parliament, as well as from consumer and business organisations.
This strategy identifies consumers as essential, responsible economic agents in the Internal Market. As such, consumers must be empowered to make informed choices about the goods and services they purchase.
We all recognise that the Internal Market must work for the benefit of both consumers and business. To make this happen, the Consumer Policy Strategy, besides placing a particular emphasis on creating a sound knowledge base for defining and promoting consumer interests in all European policies, sets out three major mid-term objectives:
Achieving the three objectives
We have made impressive strides towards achieving these objectives by using a comprehensive and balanced mix of legislative and non-legislative actions.
As regards the first objective, I would mention:
Regarding the second objective, our achievements include:
Turning to the third objective, if we want our actions to have a real, positive impact on consumers, we must make sure that consumer organisations have the opportunity to make a real and positive contribution to the development of relevant policies.
To this end, we have significantly upgraded the profile and functioning of the European Consumer Consultative Group. Moreover, we have revamped the rules for granting of financial contributions to European consumer organisations and to specific projects, making them clearer and more transparent.
We have also developed and implemented a number of initiatives in the field of consumer education and information, ranging from training for staff of consumer organisations to the development of consumer education networks, interactive on-line education tools and teaching modules.
Priorities for future action
To follow this brief – and far from exhaustive – review of our achievements, allow me now to make some observations on where they might lead in future. It is, of course, for Commissioner designate Kyprianou to decide what impetus he will give to this policy.
But first, I should emphasise my personal confidence that, increasingly, consumer policy will indeed be at the very heart of EU policy-making. This is especially true in the light of the recent enlargement and in view of the priority that Commission President-designate Barroso intends to attach to the Lisbon agenda.
In this context, I would suggest that at least three issues deserve to be listed as potential priorities.
First, making legislation work in practice. It is vital to ensure that the wide-ranging legislative measures introduced in recent years are properly enforced and that existing legislation is streamlined and simplified, where appropriate.
Integration of consumer interests
Second, continuing work on the integration of consumer interests in other policies is crucial to bolster the coherence of our actions. The EU Treaty, and indeed the Constitution signed 12 days ago in Rome, provide specifically for such integration.
Its implementation, however, has often proved to be difficult – and this will remain a real challenge in the future for all EU institutions. This is of particular relevance in two areas:
The third priority I would identify for the future is the further development of consumer empowerment.
Consumers need the confidence to make informed choices that best suit their needs and desires. They need to be confident that effective mechanisms exist to deal with problems as and when they arise. Confident consumers are also good for the competitiveness of the economy and therefore for business.
Final consumption expenditure by households represents almost 60% of the EU GDP. You do not need a degree in economics to realise that this is one of the key factors determining economic performance.
However, we know that 45% of EU consumers are less confident in buying goods and services from a supplier in another Member State than at home. This figure rises to over 90% for cross-border, intra-EU internet shopping.
We also know that while nearly half of European consumers believe consumer protection legislation is effectively applied in their country, only one fifth believes other Member States do likewise.
Clearly the scope for improvement in this field is significant, to say the very least.
Strong consumer organisations
Before I hand over to Ms van Gennip, I would like to make one final but nonetheless important point on consumer organisations.
Over recent years the Commission has striven to develop simpler, more effective legislation addressing the concerns of European citizens.
Last year we introduced a clear set of minimum standards for civil society consultation. This has already had a tangible effect in ensuring that consultation of stakeholders, including consumer organisations, is open, coherent and transparent.
We want to provide a level-playing field to all stakeholders. This includes equal access to policy-makers and balanced representation of all legitimate interests.
Strong, independent, expert consumer organisations, both national and European, are our natural partners in making this work.
Strong consumer organisations, making the best possible use of the limited resources available to them, are not only instrumental in improving EU policy, they are crucial towards empowering consumers in the internal market.
They are also a prerequisite to make our endeavours work for consumers. This applies to all the objectives and priorities I have mentioned today.
Consumer organisations should exploit all available opportunities to make their actions more effective, including a more proactive approach towards making concrete policy proposals.
In order to have a real policy impact, consumer organisations should pool resources and cooperate, at national and international level.
Such cooperation is a useful means of sharing experience and making the most of limited financial resources. In particular in relation to areas such as financial services and competition policy, the expertise needed to make a difference for consumers is scarce and often expensive.
Of course, we do not advocate the creation of monopolies of consumer representation.
However, the fragmentation of the consumer movement, which is particularly acute in certain Member States, may be seriously detrimental to its effectiveness and may detract from the real benefit it can and should deliver to European consumers.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Five years ago, when I took office as European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, I appealed for the support and help of consumer representatives in carrying out my responsibilities. I also pledged to be open to new ideas, dialogue and cooperation. I hope I have not disappointed you on this score.
Working with you has been both stimulating and enjoyable. Let me finish by expressing my sincere gratitude for all the precious help and support you have given me over the past five years.
I wish you all continued success for the future.