Last week, the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection of the European Parliament organised a public hearing on the Proposal for a Directive on Consumer Rights. The European Commission intends a standardization of consumer protection. Experts warn, however, that national consumer rights could significantly deteriorate as a result of the introduction of lower EU standards.
According to Meglena Kuneva, EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection, it is the aim of the Proposal to create better prices, a greater choice for consumers and a higher level of consumer protection throughout Europe. Healthy markets with clearly defined consumer regulations are a necessity in times of economic difficulties. In addition, Kuneva emphasized that the Directive would not force Member States to relinquish their national consumer rights regulations, such as guarantee regulations for example. On the contrary, the Proposal was intended to improve consumer rights with regard to delivery (e.g. in case of loss or damage to goods and hidden delivery charges), the right to return after the conclusion of mail-order contracts and regulations concerning online agreements.

Jutta Gurkmann, Director of the German European Consumer Centre in Kehl confirms that there is a need for action in the area of delivery. In second place after product complaints this area would attract the most complaints. Overall, consumers throughout Europe would need more legal certainty, in particular with regard to e-commerce. Basically, Ms Gurkmann did not come out against a full harmonisation of consumer rights; in fact she pointed out that a target-oriented full harmonisation, which takes all aspects into account, would simplify cross-border sales, thereby leading to more legal certainty for consumers.

The retail representatives came out in favour of a full harmonisation of consumer rights: According to Carlos Almaraz, Deputy Director of BusinessEurope, common rules were important to inspire consumer confidence in foreign markets. In addition, harmonisation would also be advantageous for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), which in most cases don’t have a legal department of their own. Graham Wynn of EuroCommerce added that the Commission Proposal would not restrict consumer protection, as companies for image reasons and customer satisfaction would not lower their protection rules in spite of lower EU regulations. Both emphasized that full harmonisation would make a contribution to consumer protection.

Voices from research pointed out that due to very different national regulations, full harmonisation would be very difficult to implement. According to Martijn Hesselink the Directive Proposal was plainly lacking definitions: What for example is a contract? What are faults on appliances? As to that the expert of the University of Amsterdam suggests to regulate this in a common frame of reference. According to Carole Aubert de Vincelles of the University of Lyon, the implementation of full harmonisation would be particularly problematic as the current national provisions would protect consumers better than those regulations proposed by the EU. She therefore suggested applying the Directive only to cross-border purchases.

The MEP Malcolm Harbour commented that the cross-border sale of goods was only limited and criticized that the Directive Proposal would not at all deal with services and online purchases.

From AK’s point of view, a higher level of consumer protection must be at the centre of the consideration. Therefore AK urges to retain the principle of minimum harmonisation. The planned full harmonisation has a detrimental effect on consumers both at national as well as EU level and creates legal uncertainty. Only a few definitions and individual questions of law are at best suitable for full harmonisation. It is obvious that there is still a great need for clarification.

Further information:

Newsletter article dated 30-01-2009

AK Position Paper on the Proposal for a Directive on Consumer Rights

Presentations of experts