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Speech by Ann DAVISON, ECOSOC, launching the Inaugural Consumer Assembly, Brussels, 12th November 1998

EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE SUPPORTING HIGH CONSUMER STANDARDS

I am delighted to be here with my many friends from the consumer movement to open the first Consumer Assembly - a very welcome initiative by our directorate-general to raise the consumer profile. The Economic and Social Committee is one of the channels for the European Consumer Movement's voice to be heard in Europe, a responsibility we take very seriously.

There are just thirteen members of the Committee from consumer organisations seated alongside business and small business, professions, trade union, farmer, co-ops and other representatives, such as family organisations. 222 people in total. But among them we exert a significant influence and now have our first consumer President. We also work with consumer organisations in applicant countries and express ethical consumer concerns for example by supporting fair trade labelling of produce from the third world.

We give a priority to safety and risk assessment. So we would not make the mistake of the customer on the transatlantic flight. The pilot made an emergency announcement in mid Atlantic. One of our three engines has failed. The flight will be delayed one hour. Later he spoke again: the 2 nd engine has failed we'll be three hours late . Oh no , says our customer, if the third fails we'll be up here all day.

The Committee called for the extension of the Treaty base for consumer and health issues, now in force, and has long argued for the integration of consumer issues into all relevant EU policies, a principle you are putting into practice today. We accept the need for reform of the CAP, though the ESC would not go as far as the consumer movement. Nonetheless, in our comments on the farm price review, we called for the consumer costs of the CAP to be calculated and published, which can only help the consumer.

The Commission seems to have adopted this recommendation, indeed many of our ideas are adopted. For example, when we debated the cross-border transfer of money to prevent double charging, the Council enacted a compromise I negotiated on behalf of the Consumer's Category with the bankers, which provided more protection than voted on that occasion by the Parliament.

It was the Committee which proposed extending the EU-US dialogue beyond business and government. With the active support of Prime Minister Tony Blair and then the Austrian Presidency, we helped the Commission and the movement itself achieve lift-off in September for the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. An exciting moment for all of us.

One of the areas where the Committee has been particularly active on the consumer's behalf is in the area of food safety. The ESC is perhaps a barometer of European public opinion and a sea-change in attitudes has been noticeable on food safety - partly due to BSE and partly due to the accession of the Nordic countries.

Nonetheless, even in 1995, the ESC was saying that "consumers are entiled to procedures which place full protection of their health above the European Union's general interests".

The consumer movement's main concern over food safety (as for the environment) is the importance of the precautionary principle. This has been repeatedly endorsed by the ESC which says "where there is scientific uncertainty and no possibility of carrying out a comprehensive risk assessment, the approach to risk management must reflect that uncertainty". In its Opinion on BSE 1 it said "the views of experts were ignored for economic and political reasons, and the absence of proof of risk interpreted as proof that there is no risk". You know the joke about BSE - two cows in a field, one says to the other, "Are you bothered about this mad cow disease then?" "Not me," says the other, "I'm a penguin". Well the ESC bothered about BSE, and we are relieved to see that many of our recommendations have been taken on board.

Consumer organizations have also put a great deal of work into seeking reform of systems - both in Europe and globally in Codex - to win the principles of independence, excellence and accountability 2. The Committee has supported this and, interestingly, also asked for a voice for the EU as a whole on Codex in view of concern about the recent judgments on hormones. The ESC also called for reform of the Commission's system of scientific advice and has welcomed the reorganization of DG VI and DG Health and Consumer Protection to separate policy-making from advice and enforcement. Our recent Opinion on the legal base for consumer legislation supported a proper budget for consumer work.

Enforcement is a key issue for both the consumer movement and the ESC. At the time of the review of the zoonoses directive, which covered enforcement of legislation on salmonella in chicken, the Committee called for a forum of all interests to get momentum behind it. More recently, it supported the UK forum on enforcement of consumer legislation, which has now been repeated by the Irish government. It said that it attached particular importance to the coordination of the work of enforcement officers on food. In its work on pesticides and on agriculture, the Committee has called for strict enforcement of pesticide residue limits. And in its Opinion on food law and also in an Opinion on that subject it called for liability to be extended to primary agricultural products. Overall, the Committee supports EU "monitoring of monitoring" rather than duplication of effort but seeks improvement of that monitoring.

Of course the ESC represents commercial interests as well as consumer. So the Committee also quite reasonably supports simplicity of legislation, competitivity (for example, when we discussed battery hens the concern over competition from those countries with lower standards was expressed) opportunities for innovation and the importance of subsidiarity. For example, on issues of food quality, it favours mutual recognition rather than regulation.

Overall, given the composition of the ESC, its commitment to high standards of food safety and enforcement is very impressive. It should send an extremely clear message to policy-makers.

Next week, the Commission is bringing consumer representatives together again - this time to work out how to help consumers adjust to the Euro. Consumers could have much to gain from the Euro. Someone who starts out in Britain with 400 and changes it in each European country, ends up with only 200 without buying anything! As cross-border shopping and internet shopping grows, the Euro will make smaller purchases possible by removing the barrier of exchange rate costs. Those who don't shop across borders should still benefit from increased transparency and competition. The price of a pack of 4 AA batteries varies now from 2,5 to 5 euros, for example. But the Commission is right that consumer organisations will need to be active and involved in the changeovers. To make sure, for example, that traders do not round prices up and never down. Clear information is vital; clearer, let us hope, than that provided to launderette users in a suburb of Rome "Ladies, leave all your clothes here: then go and enjoy yourselves".

1. Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "The bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis and its wide-ranging consequences for the European Union" - OJ C 295/96, 7/10/96, p. 55

2 Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "General Principles of Food Law in the European Union (Commission Green Paper)" and "Consumer Health and Food Safety" (Communication from the Commission) - OJ C19/98, 29/10/97, p. 61.

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