The European Commission delivers its final act of the “New Deal for Consumers” with the publication of proposals for a Directive on better enforcement and modernisation of EU consumer protection rules and a Directive on representative action for the protection of the collective interests of consumers.
Since the beginning of the present Commission’s mandate in 2014, consumers’ rights have been central to its actions, and there have been tangible benefits delivered to European consumers, like the end of roaming charges, the ban on unjustified geo-blocking and the cross-border portability of online content services. Consumer rights have been strengthened in the energy market and in the purchase of package holidays, and new rules on accessibility of products and services for consumers with disabilities have been proposed. The proposals for the modernisation of consumer contract rules for the sale of goods and the supply of digital content are still being negotiated, with the Council and Parliament disagreeing on which rules to apply to goods with embedded digital content.
The latest proposals on protection rules and collective redress aim to:
- modernise existing rules and fill the gaps in the current consumer acquis;
- provide better redress opportunities for consumers supporting effective enforcement and greater cooperation of public authorities;
- increase cooperation with partner countries outside the EU;
- ensure equal treatment of consumers in the Single Market and tackle the problem of ‘dual quality’ consumer products;
- improve communication to make consumers more aware of their rights and to help traders, especially SMES, to comply more easily with their obligations;
- look at future challenges for consumer policy in a fast-evolving economic and technological environment.
Of particular note are the provisions on individual remedies in case of harm caused by unfair commercial practices, rules on the transparency of online platforms regarding the parties to the contract and the ways search results are reached, as well as the extension of consumers ‘protection to free services.
The proposal which has caused the most reaction is the Directive on representative actions for the protection of the collective interests of consumers, which intends to facilitate redress for consumers where many consumers are victims of the same infringement, in a so-called mass harm situation. The proposal is a response to the challenges posed by the “Dieselgate” scandal, which saw consumers in Europe not being able to be compensated, while consumers in the USA had their cars bought back or fixed. While the proposal does not open the gates to a US-style class-action system, Business Europe, the Confederation of European Business, has called the new deal for consumers “a solution in search of a problem”; BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, believes the proposal was long overdue, and would like to see the number and nature of the bodies able to initiate actions extended.
It is debatable whether these proposals will be approved before the end of the current European Parliament and Commission’s mandates; no rapporteurs in the EP have been appointed yet, and there is the usual wrangle between the Legal Affairs and the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committees on who is competent, which won’t help speed up the process.