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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer
Annual Meeting of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue
It is a great pleasure for me to be here at the opening session of the 7th annual meeting of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue.
First let me emphasise how great an honour it is for me to have been assigned this particular Commission portfolio, not least because of the significant impact these vital issues have on the daily lives of European citizens.
My early experience has certainly impressed upon me the importance of sound and effective consumer policy; not only for the rightful protection of individual citizens but also more broadly for the economic and societal benefits it has the potential to deliver.
That is why I intend to promote an inclusive agenda during my term of office – to work towards the proper integration of consumer concerns as far as possible in all relevant European policy areas.
This inclusive approach need not stop at the borders of the European Union. On the contrary, I see great potential in furthering understanding in a world-wide context.
And the TACD is an excellent vehicle for doing precisely that.
Naturally, our differing cultural or political orientations will, from time to time, give rise to different perceptions, different perspectives, different approaches.
But even where our opinions diverge, it is important that we foster and maintain a constructive dialogue towards furthering our mutual understanding and cooperation.
I believe that best way forward for future transatlantic cooperation should be focussed firmly on delivery – on achieving tangible results.
Regulatory multi-stakeholder cooperation
The time is ripe for a renewed attempt to create better transatlantic cooperation on a number of regulatory issues.
The TACD has pushed for broader participation and a greater focus on the joint solving of important problems.
I agree entirely. We need to deliver on a limited number of issues of mutual importance.
We can build both confidence and capacity. We can do this by involving the executive, regulatory agencies, legislators, the business world and of course NGOs in identifying workable solutions to certain key issues.
We need to understand the realities of our respective regulatory and political environments. This is an essential precursor to building realistic, workable solutions.
I want to focus today on four specific areas where I feel we can and should work towards building such solutions:
Nutrition / obesity
Rising levels of overweight and obesity is a problem of common concern to both the US and the EU.
Perhaps Europe was a little slow in waking up to the seriousness of its spiralling obesity problem. Many thought it was not really a European problem. Obesity is now a headline issue.
Over 200 million adults and some 14 million children in the EU are overweight or obese. And the situation is getting worse, particularly as regards children.
The basic problem is relatively easy to identify – a combination of unhealthy diets (too high in fat and sugar) usually coupled with a lack of physical activity.
But finding effective solutions is no easy task. And this was not helped by an initial reluctance of many important players to admit that they might be part of the problem.
However there is growing awareness of the gravity of the situation and a growing sense of shared responsibility for finding effective solutions.
Tackling obesity is not only important in public health terms. It will also reduce the long-term costs to health services and boost the economy by enabling citizens to lead healthy and productive lives well into old age.
Part of our response has been to launch a new initiative – the European Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health. This aims, quite simply, to catalyse actions from a range of interested parties to encourage healthier diets and greater uptake of physical activity.
Its founding members include the key EU-level representatives of the food industry, advertisers, retailers, fast-food restaurants, the cooperative movement, the consumer movement and health NGOs.
Participants have committed their organisation to stronger actions aimed at fighting obesity in a transparent and verifiable way.
Over the next few months the Platform will establish a baseline, mapping what each of its members is currently doing to promote healthy eating and regular exercise.
Members will then draw up action plans of the new initiatives they plan to launch and the new investments they plan to make in 2006.
I have been encouraged by the early response of industry to this process. That said, I have made crystal clear what I want to see coming out of this process.
I want to see a step change – a significant increase – in the collective effort devoted to fighting obesity and overweight in Europe.
I believe this is a prime area for effective EU/US co-operation. Clearly we share the aim of promoting healthier diets and increased levels of physical activity, and preventing obesity and other nutrition-related diseases and conditions.
I therefore propose to convene a plenary meeting of the Platform, to include representatives of the US Administration, the American food industry and consumer organisations. This will take place in the spring of 2006.
I very much hope that the Platform proves to be a success and that US participation will constitute a positive factor in ensuring that success.
Consumer Product Safety
The second priority I wish to mention is consumer product safety. Our basic objective here is to facilitate a consistently high level of protection for each and every citizen.
I know that the US shares the same objective. With the constant growth of international trade, the same products are increasingly present both in the European and North American markets.
Indeed, our revised General Product Safety Directive, which came into force last year, includes certain new obligations, which represent positive advances for consumers.
Business, for example, is obliged to inform the relevant authorities about dangerous products. This enables competent authorities to monitor whether companies have taken appropriate measures to address risks posed by products on the market.
In February, new guidelines on product safety were issued to strengthen transatlantic cooperation between the European Commission and the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. These guidelines form an important basis for day-to-day cooperation.
The guidelines encompass regular exchanges of information and the establishment of a series of joint initiatives to help safeguard consumer health and safety.
Both parties will provide information on major recall operations and will identify risks and measures taken in respect to products originating from each of their respective regions.
Again, this is an initiative which promises better levels of protection to citizens on both sides of the Atlantic through enhanced, mutually beneficial cooperation.
Devising and agreeing solid consumer protection laws is of course essential – but this is only half of the battle. Equally important is its rigorous and effective implementation.
Across a Union of 25 Member States, co-operation between national authorities is an essential component towards ensuring the smooth running of our internal market. And in particular it is necessary to combat dishonest trading across borders.
December of last year saw agreement on a European Regulation on consumer protection cooperation. This will establish an EU network of public authorities responsible for the protection of consumer economic interests.
It partially harmonises investigation and enforcement powers and provides for mutual assistance arrangements.
The aim of this Regulation is to ensure that consumers are adequately protected against rogue and dishonest traders in cross-border situations, thereby reinforcing consumer confidence.
But, of course, these problems are not simply confined within the EU. For example, the growth of the Internet has seen scams mushroom across the globe.
To respond to this the enforcement Regulation contains a provision, applicable from 29 December 2005, which specifically provides for international agreements to be drawn-up between the EU and third countries.
I am pleased to say there is a clear willingness from the Federal Trade Commission to enter into exploratory discussions with us with a view to negotiating such an agreement.
I would add that the EU-US agreement on customs cooperation and mutual assistance in customs matters provide good precedents for this type of agreement.
Unfair Commercial Practices Directive
I would like to mention briefly another important piece of EU legislation in the field of consumer protection – our Unfair Commercial Practices Directive.
I would point out that in drafting this Directive the Commission took careful note of FTC guidelines on unfairness and deception.
The final adoption of the Directive is expected to take place in June. The Member States will have to implement its provisions into national laws by June 2007.
The Directive regulates in detail the two most common unfair commercial practices – misleading and aggressive practices. Furthermore, it contains a “blacklist” which prohibits upfront a number of practices and it enhances the protection of vulnerable groups of consumers.
We will work closely with Member States, as well as consumer and business stakeholders, to ensure speedy and uniform implementation across the EU.
Frequently, consumer policy development is hampered by a lack of knowledge of what is really happening in the market.
In this context, I want to mention a challenging concept – that of “consumer detriment” – where consumers are losing out in the market.
We see consumer detriment as a potential tool to identify problems faced by consumers in specific markets or sectors; evaluating whether markets work properly; and assessing the impact of policy decisions.
We are following the experience of other jurisdictions with a keen interest, including the U.S.
Against this background, it would be very useful if consumer associations on both sides of the Atlantic could help us to assess consumer detriment by sharing with us their grassroots experience regarding the areas where consumers experience most detriment.
We have particular concerns about the impact on consumers of certain aspects of the use of information and communication technologies. The documents presented by the TACD in this regard are extremely challenging, and will require careful reflection.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have mentioned only a select few of the many issues we are currently addressing in the field of consumer protection.
Before I finish I would like to emphasise once again the importance I attach to good international relations in pursuit of common aims and objectives.
The strategy for future transatlantic relations should be to prevent rather than to cure – and this can only be achieved if we regularly exchange views, inside the EU and with our US partners. The work of the TACD is vitally important in this regard.
I am very much looking forward to the challenge of the next four and half years. I know there is much we can achieve together, and I look to the TACD to be an important facilitator and catalyst in pursuing the protection and enforcement of consumer interests on both sides of the Atlantic.