Speech by Mrs
Bonino, at the closing session of the Assembly of Consumer
Associations in Europe.
Although unable to bid you welcome two
days ago at the opening of this Assembly, I would like now
to express my sincere thanks for the excellent work which
you have accomplished, the results of which are now known
As the representatives of a community of
more than 370 000 000 consumers, your presence here
symbolises a heightened sense of awareness and of joint
The Commission is a firm believer in the
need for and the importance of gatherings such as this one,
providing an opportunity to get a dialogue going and to
have a lively exchange of views; your discussions and the
resulting conclusions are proof of this.
The holding of this Assembly prefigures
your new responsibilities under the Amsterdam Treaty, due
to enter into force shortly.
I can assure you that the Treaty, and in
particular Article 153 thereof, will constitute the
starting point for new initiatives which the Commission
intends to take in the field of consumer protection, with
the aim of:
giving consumers more say in
assuring them of greater health and
safeguarding their economic
There is no doubt that we need you to
work together with us in order to achieve these
Before sharing with you my thoughts on
some of the conclusions reached in the course of the
Assembly, I would like to draw your attention to two major
aspects of consumer life which will be of great importance
to all of us in the immediate future.
The issues in question are:
1. Introduction of the euro
This will be an important event both for
Europe and for consumer organisations.
You have not been wholly satisfied with
the existing legislation, in particular as regards dual
pricing prior to the introduction of the coins and notes,
and the additional costs which that may entail for
consumers; nevertheless, under the auspices of the
Commission, agreement has been reached between consumer
associations and professionals in the commerce, tourism and
craft trade sectors on a code of conduct with a "Eurolabel"
seal of approval.
I expect this agreement to provide an
acceptable solution to a matter which, in the end, will be
of transient significance during the introduction of the
It only remains to be seen how far the
positive elements of the dialogue resulting in this
agreement can be applied to other sectors.
2. Food safety
This is a highly complex issue, with
environmentally-sound agricultural practices being a key
area of concern.
There is no doubt that consumers want
their food to be safe, and to have a wide variety of choice
In this respect, consumers' needs and
expectations vary, going far beyond just a question of
value for money.
The Commission is aware of these
expectations and is endeavouring to satisfy them by:
improving, rationalising and
simplifying the existing legislative framework, with a
view to reducing the element of risk as far as
monitoring more closely the
application of the legal provisions;
providing more relevant information to
consumers throughout Europe.
As far as consumer information is
concerned, I would like to take this opportunity to remind
you of the European information campaign on food safety
which was launched last month, on 15 October, in
partnership with the competent organisations in the Member
States; it is now up and running in the 15
This campaign, underpinned by a code of
safety and sound food hygiene practices, targets a wide
Although the campaign focuses on the
general public, we must not lose sight of the fact that
consumers alone are not responsible for the safety of the
food they eat; both industry and agriculture, as well as
the public authorities, shoulder a large part of the
In this area, therefore, nothing less
than transparency at all levels and a pooling of effort
will reassure consumers that everything is being done to
obtain untainted products and thus to restore their
Over and above the problem of
information, food safety is without doubt a priority for
The revamping of Health and Consumer
Protection Directorate-General and of the Food and
Veterinary Office provides a clear indication of the
Commission's intent in this regard.
The consumer policy action programme for
the next few years will highlight even more the priority
given to the health and aspirations of consumers.
It is clear, though, that there is no
such thing as "zero" risk in relation to foodstuffs, but we
must do everything possible to minimise the risk.
In the interest of food safety, there
has to be close interaction and partnership, from foodstuff
production through to consumption, between European and
national public authorities, agriculture, industry, the
distributive trade and consumers.
The Member States must take all the
necessary measures to ensure that the Community rules are
observed on their territory.
The main challenge facing the food
industry is to safeguard consumers' freedom of choice and
to apply "proportionality" in relation to the actual needs
These considerations in the food sector
lead me to the question of CAP reform.
I share your view that the proposed
reform is a step in the right direction but still does not
wholly satisfy the legitimate expectations of the
As matters stand, the Commission is
hoping that a consensus can be reached within the Member
States for moving ahead with the proposed reform. As you
know, there is strong resistance to it.
For my part, I shall see to it that
consumers' concerns are more fully reflected in the action
programme for the next three years in connection with
agricultural policy reform; this will, of course, include
your concerns about the safety of foodstuffs and the
development of controls at all stages of the production
In line with your wishes, I shall strive
to ensure that the farming support system is geared more
towards direct aid, subject to environment-friendly and
Also, I share your desire for
transparency, particularly as regards the cost to the
consumer of the CAP; I and my colleagues within the
Commission shall look at ways of carrying out regular
impact studies concerning the actual cost and the impact of
agriculture-related measures on the consumer.
From the point of view of passing price
reductions on to consumers and monitoring prices all along
the line, I have informed Commissioner Fischler of my
readiness for and interest in any action which might be
taken in this respect by my colleagues responsible for
competition, industry and the retail trade.
As for the Assembly's deliberations on
the Commission's three-year programme for consumer policy,
I am pleased to note that the associations share our
To be sure, as far as translating the
objectives into specific initiatives is concerned, there
may be different shades of opinion on either side: you tell
us that the plan is ambitious, but you want to add to
Some of you have spoken of "realism", a
concept to which I fully subscribe. All the more so since
the scope of our resources is fixed for the next five
years. We must therefore get by as best we can, making the
fullest use of the available resources at European and
national level. My approach will be realistic and
pragmatic, particularly since the
incorporation of consumer policy into other policies
is one of my priorities. It will be a question of taking
things one step at a time, and we shall need your support
in the form of pressure and lobbying.
Just a word about dialogue, in view of
the confusion which exists. I agree that dialogue must not
be an alibi or excuse for failure to legislate. May I just
say, though, that there are times when legislation does not
happen, and we need to ask ourselves whether it is better
to have nothing at all or self-regulation in some form or
Having said that, I would like to repeat
that dialogue is, in my view, a process whereby both
parties can gain a better understanding of the problems at
issue. Moreover, should the dialogue result in the adoption
of rules or codes of conduct, this must be achieved through
negotiation with consumers, making provision for follow-up
instruments and for sanctions to be applied to those who,
having given an undertaking, fail to abide by it.
This is the "philosophy" of dialogue
which I am advocating at Commission level.
The Assembly's conclusions on the role
of consumer associations in the light of the Amsterdam
Treaty need to be fleshed out as and when Article 153 is
As I have said, that Article recognises
for the first time the right of consumer associations to
organise themselves in order to safeguard their
I believe that the important political
aspect of this instrument and this new Article could result
in effective participation by consumer associations in the
decision-making process at both national and Community
To this end, meaningful progress could
be made by means of suitable instruments and dialogue in
the absence of legislation, e.g. on grounds of
Without wishing to flatter you, you have
achieved a great deal with your deliberations and forward
I welcome your efforts and assure you
that your conclusions will be closely examined by my
departments; I know that you will settle for nothing
Furthermore, I hope that this Assembly
will be an annual event, providing an opportunity both to
gauge the extent to which your suggestions and ideas have
been put into practice and to address other aspects of our
policy which we have to look closely at together.
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