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       EU Policies 30/03/2010
A maximum level of protection for consumers in Europe?

The EU is working on a legislative proposal to harmonise consumer rights in Europe, the so-called ‘Consumer Rights Directive’.


During a conference organised at the representation of Baden-Württemberg (Germany) on 24 March in Brussels, the European Parliament rapporteur on the ‘Consumer Rights Directive”, Mr Andreas Schwab, spoke about possible adaptation of the current proposal. The centre of criticism by the MEPs is the so-called approach of ‘full harmonisation’ which would in some cases imply a levelling down of existing national legislation. What seems preferable is the principle of ‘targeted harmonisation’ advocated by several MEPs. Whatever the outcome will be, it is almost certain that the initial Commission proposal will still have to endure various changes before it will be transposed in the Member States.


As an anecdote, Mr Schwab mentioned that last year he wanted to purchase a ski helmet via the Internet in France, since German shops had run out of stock. The easy appearing project turned out to be difficult, since the French trader was reluctant to sell cross-boarder without receiving any guarantees. Finally, Mr Schwab had to promise that he would pay and keep the helmet even if it did not fit (to exclude reflection about return modalities). The example shows that cross-boarder shopping is still met with reluctance from both, consumer and business side, with view to lasting uncertainty about the legal system which should apply.


Work on a directive that would for the first time bring together all consumer rights in a single law began two years ago in the European Parliament. But the proposal to apply the method of full harmonisation under this legislation has led to political deadlock.


Adaptation of the EC proposal:


Seeking to find a way forward, the new Commissioner responsible for this area, Viviane Reding, has decided not to take the same line as her predecessor. The Commission would be willing to do adapt its first proposal after first reading if Parliament and the Council were in agreement. It would then drop the draft directive's Article 4, which provides for full harmonisation and states that Member States may not keep or introduce into national law any provisions - whether stricter or more flexible - which are not laid down by the directive.


The Commission also accepts the principle of "targeted" harmonisation advocated by several MEPs. This means the degree of harmonisation would depend in each case on the benefit to consumers. Maximum harmonisation would thus no longer be used "automatically and blindly", in the words of Emilie Turunen (Greens/EFA, DK). The Commission is proposing to distinguish between direct transactions and those done at a distance. In the first category, where there are big differences between national laws, the "pragmatic", targeted solution would be used. In the second category, especially for internet shopping, where security for consumers and legal clarity for operators are crucial, there should be maximum harmonisation of the rules.


The directive needs to benefit both consumers and companies from the outset. Consumer confidence would mean increased business. Clearer rules would make life easier for both.


Steps to come:


Andreas Schwab, the committee rapporteur, will in April present a proposal for an amended version of the first chapter of the directive, which includes the controversial provisions on harmonisation. Before the summer, his full draft report should be submitted to the Internal Market Committee, which is expected to hold its vote in September. The matter could come before the full Parliament in November. The rapporteur also announced he would ask the Commission for a series of studies analysing the optimum degree of harmonisation "chapter by chapter".


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