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Speech from Ken Collins MEP, Chair, EP's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection to First Annual Assembly of NGO consumer associations in the EU on 12 November

"Building on the relationship between national consumer associations and the European Parliament"

Introduction

Want to begin by congratulating the Commission on the establishment of an annual gathering. It is important that nationally based NGO doing grassroots work have an opportunity to become directly involved in EU policy-making. It is up to participants to ensure that it is productive and genuine success. What are the ingredients required for such a success?

Most important is an understanding of what and how progress can be achieved in other words of the context in which policy-making takes place. I will now address the context from an European Parliament point of view setting out

i) the role of the European Parliament in consumer decision making;

ii) how consumer NGOs can co-operate most effectively with the European Parliament and

iii) illustrating the importance of flexibility and the recognition that changing priorities will necessitate changing strategies (e.g, advent of euro, new responsibilities in human health protection and agricultural reform)

First however, for those NGOs that do not deal on a regular basis with Brussels policy making, I will give some background on the European Parliament itself - how it works and what its powers are in consumer policy making.

The role of the European Parliament

Consumer protection is a relative late comer to the EU treaties - a specific Title was not introduced until the 1992 TEU. However action in favour of consumers has long been undertaken by other means. For example, through single market legislation and the recognition that it was no use creating a level playing field for industry if consumers could not benefit from the opportunities too. An example of this is legislation on food labelling dating from 1979 which enables fair competition between food businesses but also serves to ensure consumers get accurate information.

The great benefit of having so much consumer protection legislation adopted under single market legal base is that this is one area of policy making where the European Parliament has always enjoyed greater decision-making powers. Since the entry into force of the TEU, the EP has acted as co-legislator. One of the first joint legal decisions enacted by the European Parliament and the Council was legislation governing timeshares. Achievements since then have included unit pricing and rules governing distance selling.

The changes to Article 129a in the TEU following the adoption of the treaty of Amsterdam (ratification expected early next year), introduce a new obligation for Community policy and activities in all areas to take account of consumer protection requirements. The Community is also committed in the Amsterdam Treaty to promoting the rights of consumers to information, education and to self-organisation to better safeguard their interests.

This will mean incremental rather than radical change and the key to making effective use of the new but rather general obligations is to ensure that enforcement is effective and that consumers in general (rather than as represented by NGOs) are aware of their rights and opportunities.

Effective Co-operation

The new opportunities presented by the Treaty of Amsterdam, make it more important than ever to ensure that.MEPs are well briefed on local, regional and national level consumer initiatives. Of course, MEPs already receive this information from a variety of sources - private sector, trades unions, local politicians and constituents. However, each organisation's point of view is crucial to ensuring that legislation is effective and that the EU achieves positive changes to citizens' lives.

Consumer policy initiatives are one of few policy areas where large numbers of individuals directly benefit from actions undertaken at an EU level. Other policy areas affect people indirectly through their impact on utilities or on businesses. However, the creation of a single market in financial services or the right to cross border redress, are tangible benefits for the citizens of the EU. Another area for co-operation therefore is in building profile and support for policies developed here and implemented in Member States. Consumer NGOs have long played a part in education campaigns and in providing the grassroots supports for information initiatives. This work should be extended, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Funding for this work must continue along the lines proposed by the European Parliament, the recent decision of the Consumer Council notwithstanding, so that national NGOs can continue to provide these crucial services.

Must not forget either, the fundamentally political nature of the European Parliament nor its experience in running successful campaigns. For example, during this Parliament, the European Parliament's pressure over the BSE fiasco was instrumental in persuading the Commission to reorganise its services and to change the way that it addressed human health protection. The Commission's research programme into the safety of mobile phones can be directly traced to questions from MEPs requesting that action be taken. Consumer NGOs have a vital advocacy and information role to play in these campaigns as you bring a wealth of valuable practical experience to the debate that the European Parliament is keen to hear. It is important that these various roles are maintained and also, that the experiences of all NGOs are heard and not just those views from countries where the consumer movement has been historically much stronger.

Changing priorities to meet changing needs

The workshop sessions this afternoon give some idea of the priorities consumer NGOs might like to think about. I have already mentioned briefly consumer policy post-Amsterdam. Want now to turn to CAP reform. The fact that the needs and requirements of ordinary consumers are rarely considered in this debate is frankly inexcusable. Whilst it is undeniably important from an environmental standpoint to maintain the fabric of the rural environment, high internal farm prices are not necessary to do it. The European Parliament's Environment and Consumer Protection Committee has always advocated rewarding farmers for their environmental stewardship and we are delighted that Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General has finally come round to the idea. However, it has been less progressive in other areas of the proposed reform.

For example, the extension of the CAP to the CEEC countries would likely be a disaster imposing even heavier burdens on CEEC consumers than are imposed here. It has been estimated that prices for white sugar would rise by 30 to 50% in CEEC countries if the EU's sugar regime is implemented unreformed in CEEC countries. This is clearly unacceptable given the higher proportion of household income consumers in applicant countries spend on food. This is one area where information sharing and the development of joint strategies would be invaluable.

We would go even further however, and question why the CAP is subsidising for example, the sugar or the tobacco regimes at all. As health policy becomes increasingly integrated into food and consumer policies, we need to question why we have these subsidies and whether they are compatible with our goals in other areas. I mention this not to prejudge this afternoon's debate but to try to give a brief overview of where the European Parliament's Consumer Protection Committee stands on some of these issues. This is an area where the consumer NGOs have a clear interest and where they should be assessing the proposals from the consumer viewpoint and advocating pro consumer strategies.

Conclusion

To sum up, I would like to encourage those consumer organisations represented here today who have been less involved with European Parliament in the past, to build and maintain links with MEPs. The European Parliament has great responsibility in the area of consumer protection policy and has always been receptive to views from a huge range of outside organisations and individuals. This is its strength (although can also be its weakness).

On a practical note, I would also encourage the exchange of information and "lobbying tips' because if you are going to influence legislative developments effectively, you need to keep in touch and know when to raise issues and with whom. That includes remembering that whilst Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General is the prime mover in consumer protection policy and initiatives, there are 23 other DGs out there whose work can also affect consumers.

Finally in terms of campaigning work it is as important to lobby at home as it is to lobby here. National governments participate as co-legislators with the European Parliament. You neglect them at your peril!

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