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European Commission

Viviane Reding

Vice-President of the European Commission, EU Commissioner for Justice

Towards a more coherent enforcement of EU consumer rules

European Consumer Summit 2013/Brussels

19 March 2013

Main Messages

Why consumer protection matters – especially in times of crisis:

Europe's citizens are also Europe's consumers. They are entitled to have their rights respected. As we saw last week, with the Court's judgment on unfair terms in mortgage agreements in the Aziz case, EU consumer protection rules can make a real difference in the lives of citizens, by protecting the vulnerable party, by protecting David when he is negotiating with Goliath. It is important to know that in these difficult times of financial crisis, EU law is there to ensure fairness.

On outstanding challenges:

Consumer spending accounts for 56% of EU GDP, but a lack of consumer confidence in shopping across EU borders means we are still not tapping into the full growth potential of the Single Market.

Consumers do not fully benefit from the variety of choice and lower prices available in the Single Market. In fact, citizens shopping online across the EU have many more products to choose from. Yet 60% of consumers do not yet use this option. Why? Simply because they feel safer shopping at home. That is the challenge we face.

Enforcement matters:

Strong rules become weak rules when they can be disregarded with impunity. So enforcement matters.

Consumers need to know their rights will be enforced and reputable traders need to know that unfair traders will face appropriate penalties.

Progress and work ahead

The Unfair Commercial Practices Directive is proving to be a valuable tool to increase consumer welfare

But Member States and stakeholders have signalled several challenges: complexity of internal procedures, a lack of resources, and a lack of deterrent sanctions threaten to undermine the proper application of the legislation. In addition, unfair commercial practices that occur cross-border are a real challenge for enforcers to respond to rapidly and efficiently.

The travel and transport, digital and on-line, financial services and immovable property markets are major sectors where consumers continue to lose out. In addition, enforcers need to examine closer retailers' environmental claims, which are often very general, vague and not always used

Incorrect or misleading information about legal rights and warranties is a recurring problem that we have found.

The Apple case:

Apple was fined by the Italian authorities for misleading advertising of their commercial warranties and for not respecting the legal guarantee of 2 years to which consumers are entitled under EU law.

Last September I wrote to consumer ministers about this case encouraging them to take appropriate action. I also wanted to be clear that if the same problem is found right across the Union consumers can expect their rights to be upheld in a similar fashion.

The approaches to enforcement turn out to be very diversified and inconsistent at a national level. In at least 21 EU countries Apple is not informing consumers correctly about the legal warranty rights they have. This is simply not good enough.

This case and the responses I received since I sent my letter have highlighted rather clearly just why the Commission cannot sit on the side-lines on enforcement issues.

I believe that the Commission has to take a more prominent role in monitoring and coordinating coherent enforcement of EU consumer rules by the Member States. A more proactive approach can also be a rather efficient way of dealing with emerging commercial practices, for example, the use of on-line price comparison or customer review tools. In the on-line world, it is quite normal for there to be a cross-border dimension

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here today.

This year's Consumer Summit is the perfect opportunity to take stock of the functioning of the EU's consumer protection rules as part of the European Year of Citizens.

Europe's citizens are also Europe's consumers. They are entitled to have their rights respected. As we saw last week, with the Court's judgment on unfair terms in mortgage agreements in the Aziz case, EU consumer protection rules can make a real difference in the lives of citizens, by protecting the vulnerable party, by protecting David when he is negotiating with Goliath.

The Court of Justice of the European Union last Thursday ruled against Spain's mortgage legislation, saying that norms regulating the evictions of mortgage defaulters violated a European directive on consumer protection. An estimated 350,000 people had lost or were about to lose their homes over unpaid mortgages in crisis-hit Spain. The European Court said that not allowing judges to suspend evictions while investigating whether mortgage contracts contain abusive clauses, would go against EU rules. This judgement matters for citizens. It is important to know that in these difficult times of financial crisis, EU law is there to ensure fairness.

That is why the Commission has recently outlined a series of actions aimed at boosting consumer confidence. Starting with last year's Consumer Agenda which identifies the key measures needed to empower consumers to make the most of the Single Market.

Unfortunately, our data show that consumers do not fully benefit from the variety of choice and lower prices available in the Single Market. In fact, citizens shopping online across the EU have many more products to choose from. Yet 60% of consumers do not yet use this option. Why? Simply because they feel safer shopping at home. That is the challenge we face.

Consumer spending accounts for 56% of EU GDP, but a lack of consumer confidence in shopping across EU borders means we are still not tapping into the full growth potential of the Single Market.

One way of boosting confidence is to send a clear signal that we mean business in enforcing EU rules on consumer protection. This Consumer Summit is right to focus on this important subject. Strong rules become weak rules when they can be disregarded with impunity. So enforcement matters.

Because healthy cross-border trade needs consumers to know their rights will be enforced and reputable traders to know that unfair traders will face appropriate penalties. This is paramount today: the digital revolution makes cross-border shopping easier, but also easier for rogue traders to engage in unfair practices.

Ladies and gentlemen, ensuring a better implementation and enforcement of existing rules is a "quick win" for growth and jobs;

Allow me to explain some of the good progress we have made so far.

Consumer Rights Directive

The new Consumer Rights Directive will have to be transposed into national law by the end of the year. It will bring about significant improvements for consumers shopping online, including common rules on a number of pivotal aspects, such as an EU-wide withdrawal period of 14 days.

Coherence between Member States laws will make coordinated enforcement easier, e.g. via the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network. My services have therefore been more than happy to provide guidance proactively in the transposition process.

But I also wish to improve how these rules regarding digital goods are enforced. To that end, I am planning guidelines and templates to find a simple way for businesses to provide information to consumers and thereby also to simplify the life of enforcement bodies.

The current rules in combination with the new rules will provide for a good protection of citizens regarding digital products.

Unfair Commercial Practices Directive

I can also report progress on the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. Last week we published a communication and a report on its application.

The Unfair Commercial Practices Directive is proving to be a valuable tool to increase consumer welfare. The Directive has helped national consumer protection watchdogs curb a broad range of unfair business practices: such as providing untruthful information to consumers or using aggressive techniques to influence their choices.

Member States and stakeholders have signalled several challenges: complexity of internal procedures, a lack of resources, and a lack of deterrent sanctions threaten to undermine the proper application of the legislation. In addition, unfair commercial practices that occur cross-border are a real challenge for enforcers to respond to rapidly and efficiently.

The travel and transport, digital and on-line, financial services and immovable property markets are major sectors where consumers continue to lose out. In addition, enforcers need to examine closer retailers' environmental claims, which are often very general, vague and not always used responsibly.

There is, therefore, a call for more stringent enforcement.

But there is also a need for a more coherent enforcement.

It is sometimes forgotten that the EU's consumer rules serve the objective of building the internal market. By replacing 27 national regimes with one set of rules, the Directive has simplified rules on unfair commercial practices, making it easier for consumers to know what their rights are, no matter where in the EU they are shopping. But both consumers and traders are still faced with uncertainty in knowing how these rules will be enforced by the different national enforcement bodies. Both consumers and traders should be able to expect a coherent approach to enforcing the same set of rules.

The Commission will take a prominent role in this process, joining forces with the Member States and supporting them in their application of EU consumer protection rules across the EU.

My services are working to improve the Guidance document on the application of the Directive and to expand the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive database. They will also hold a series of thematic workshops between national enforcers, starting here at this Consumer Summit.

Incorrect or misleading information about legal rights and warranties is a recurring problem that we have found.

The Apple case

As an example of such practices, I would like to refer to a very recent case. In that case, Apple was fined by the Italian authorities for misleading advertising of their commercial warranties and for not respecting the legal guarantee of 2 years to which consumers are entitled under EU law.

This case is still on-going and law suits against the company have recently been filed by consumer associations in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal, while a collective action against the company started last October in Italy.

Last September I wrote to consumer ministers about this case encouraging them to take appropriate action. I also wanted to be clear that if the same problem is found right across the Union consumers can expect their rights to be upheld in a similar fashion.

This case and the responses I received since I sent my letter have highlighted rather clearly just why the Commission cannot sit on the side-lines on enforcement issues. The approaches to enforcement in these types of cases turn out to be very diversified and inconsistent at a national level. In at least 21 EU Member States Apple is not informing consumers correctly about the legal warranty rights they have. This is simply not good enough.

The dedicated workshop on guarantees later today is one of the first opportunities to discuss existing shortcomings with national authorities and other stakeholders and decide ways to coordinate enforcement of cases with EU-wide relevance.

What lessons can we learn from such cases, which can be economically very significant due to the large number of consumers affected?

I believe that the Commission has to take a more prominent role in monitoring and coordinating coherent enforcement of EU consumer rules by the Member States. As the Commission underlined in its Consumer Agenda, I and my colleague Commissioner Tonio Borg will pay particular attention to recurring issues, where essentially the same problem occurs in different Member States. A more proactive approach can also be a rather efficient way of dealing with emerging commercial practices, for example, the use of on-line price comparison or customer review tools. In the on-line world, it is quite normal for there to be a cross-border dimension, which raises common questions for national enforcers.

That is why I believe that the Commission should lend a helping hand. We can join forces with national enforcement bodies, reinforcing cooperation to ensure a more consistent interpretation and enforcement of the consumer acquis.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me now take a step back and put enforcement of consumer rights into a wider perspective.

Enforcement is not just about the resources and efficiency of national consumer protection authorities. As Commissioner for Justice, I stress that access to effective justice is essential for the enforcement of existing consumer EU legislation.

Small Claims

This leads me to an important tool for consumer redress that is often, unfortunately, overlooked: the European Small Claims Procedure. It is a swift, simple procedure that moreover, lightens the load on judicial courts.

The European Small Claims Procedure allows consumers to litigate cross-border claims through harmonised procedural rules in the European Union. It is a written procedure where representation by a lawyer is not required. The resulting judgement is enforceable throughout the Union.

Obviously it is always better to settle a case without going to court at all. However, it is not always possible. In such situations the European Small Claims Procedure brings a viable means for consumers to assert their rights.

The Commission has produced several practical measures to support the European Small Claims Procedure.

  • We have prepared interactive online forms to be used within the European Small Claims Procedure.

  • We are preparing training tools for judges and other professionals.

  • Alongside the European Judicial Network in civil and commercial matters, we have drafted a comprehensive guide for practitioners, which will soon be available in all official languages.

  • We will also produce a simplified guide for consumers to be finalised in May.

I trust that the Member States, authorities and consumer organisations will advertise the guidelines widely, ensuring that all stakeholders are informed of the European Small Claims Procedure.

This year marks the fifth year of application of the European Small Claims Procedure. I will issue a report later this year on its practical operation and whether its policy aims have been achieved.

It is time therefore to reflect if and how the European Small Claims Procedure can be improved in light of practical experience and developments in the judicial and economic spheres. Consumer bodies and individual consumers have told us that courts need to have greater awareness of this procedure. Furthermore, I intend to look at whether the current threshold, 2000 Euros, should be reconsidered. Many Member States have increased the thresholds of simplified procedures at the national level, even up to claims of 25 000 Euros.

I have therefore launched today a public consultation on the future of the European Small Claims Procedure. It is now up to you to share with us your expectations and ideas. I look forward to receiving your responses to the public consultation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I believe the EU has, in the course of the years, established a very solid consumer acquis. We should not forget that the EU has set a gold standard to protect its consumers.

However, even good laws are of little use if they are not properly enforced. That is why enforcement is such a priority for me.

Strong enforcement means strong teamwork between the European institutions, Member States and stakeholders. I know I can count on your commitment.

Thank you for your attention.


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