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Health and Consumer Protection

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Speech of Mrs Emma Bonino, Commissioner responsible for Consumers Policy and Consumer Health Protection at the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue - Brussels, 22-23 April 1999

Mrs Esserman, Mr State Secretary Schomerus, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to have the honour of being the first speaker at the opening session of this second Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. I regretted very much that I was not in a position to attend the first meeting in September last year in Washington D.C., not least because the European Commission played a leading role in setting up this Dialogue.

Why do we think this Dialogue process is so important? First, because the globalisation and liberalisation of markets as well as the dissemination of new technologies have revolutionised the way markets serve consumers. Business was the first to understand this. It has organised itself consequently e.g. under the Transatlantic Business Dialogue umbrella first and, more recently, in the Global Business Dialogue. It is true to say that the latter was set up at the initiative of the Commission.

But the consumers voice should also be heard. Giving consumers a more powerful voice in the EU and in the world is one of the three objectives which are at the basis of the new Commission three year Programme for the years 1999-2001. The two other objectives are a high level of health and safety protection and full respect for consumers' economic interests.

There are of course other reasons why the TACD is important:

Apart from identifying issues which may become a source of contention and which one should try to solve through Dialogue, the TACD is also a body bringing together leaders of the consumer movement from all over the EU and the US representing over 630 million consumers which should be able to influence policy makers, just as the TABD does.

I do not like the idea of talk shops. On the contrary, I look forward to receiving from you concrete ideas having an impact on our governments. We are expecting from you deliverables, as our American friends would say.

It will not be an easy task. From your agenda I can see that you are tackling the thorniest of issues which confront us : GMOs and food safety, antibiotics, electronic commerce, data privacy, and so on. On top of that, you consumer organisations on both sides of the Atlantic have different traditions of activism and on some subjects different philosophies; in addition, our societies seem to have taken different approaches to certain issues, for instance, in the case of GMOs. This does not make things easier.

But you share something important in common: that is the will to protect consumers' interests and the will to dialogue. The joint statement on the Transatlantic Economic Partnership which you addressed last December to the EU-US summit showed that your Dialogue can work. The Commission was impressed. I hope this was also true for the US Government.

The TACD also gives a broader perspective to many of the local or regional consumer associations by showing them that today many decisions affecting consumers are not taken any more at regional or even at national level but at international level in organisations such as Codex Alimentarius, the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement, and the World Trade Organisation

(WTO). It is striking that the WTO has decided that in the coming millennium multilateral negotiations, civil society, including consumers, will be able to voice their concerns.

Regarding the reasons behind this, let me remind you of what President Clinton addressed explicitly in his speech to the WTO in Geneva in May 1998: (I quote) "... Working people will only assume the risks of a free international market if they have the confidence that this system will work for them ... I propose the WTO, for the first time, provide a forum where business, labour, environmental and consumer groups can speak out and help guide the further evolution of the WTO ..." The European Community shares the President's view on this.

Another point I would like to make is that consumer policy-makers and consumer representatives need to improve their relationship with other policy-makers as consumer issues become increasingly inter-linked with other policies (agriculture, market liberalisation, (combatting child labour, etc). Here again, the TACD can play a role. The TEP offers a good opportunity for this. Since it is the political framework where the US and the EU meet to discuss items such as biotechnology, Procurement, Technical barriers to trade in goods, Services, Intellectual Property, Multilateral issues and Environment. Another one might be the possible setting up by the US and the EU administrations of a Dialogue between the existing Dialogues: TACD, Business, Labour and Environment Dialogues.

Finally, amongst the topics on your agenda, I would like to single out Food Safety and e-commerce and say a few words about these fundamental issues for the consumers.

Food safety is so important to the European citizens that the Commission decided to launch a campaign in the 15 Member States. This campaign was launched in October 98 and will go on until November. This year in our EU-wide survey, 68 % of the citizens declared themselves concerned about food safety, their first concern.

More than half of European consumers consider a foodstuff to be safe when it contains no pesticides, no hormones and when it is checked by the national or European bodies.

The campaign also responds to the Commission's concern to help reduce the number, and the impact, of food poisoning cases in Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, it was calculated that 50% of food poisoning is due to problems of treatment after sale, that is, owing to an error in consumer manipulation. It is thus difficult to accept that one link in the food chain could be as «dangerous » as all the other links put together.

The topic of the campaign is that food safety is a shared responsibility: farmers, producers, distributors and a sub-topic, which arises from this, is: responsible consumers are informed and active. They do not eat everything they are given: they check and pay attention to the labels. In the event of a problem, they contact the consumer associations and/or the competent authorities.

The precise objective of the campaign is to inform and educate the consumer about this complicated subject, by means of some simple messages. I have the feeling that the success of the campaign is due inter alia to the involvement of consumers' associations from the 15 countries. Their involvement has made the associations better known to the consumers and has strengthened their positions.

However, in spite of all our efforts to make available the best information possible and to ensure transparency, there are still areas where scientific evidence is insufficient or where negative effects are difficult to evaluate. This is why, caring as we do for future generations, consumers ask themselves fundamental questions, as for example: is it safe to eat transgenic products? If we do, what could be the consequences for our children, for us and for the environment?

If science cannot give a satisfactory answer, then, we must invoke a very important principle: the precautionary principle.

This is the reason why, Health and Consumer Protection Directorate-General has taken the initiative to elaborate a document on the precautionary principle. This could be the basis for the elaboration of guidelines on the use of this principle in risk management decisions. These guidelines should then be debated and hopefully accepted not only at European level but also at international level such as the Codex Alimentarius and the WTO.

Information technologies have opened up the perspective of a brave new world for Electronic Commerce.

Governments, consumer organisations and business representatives all want electronic commerce to flourish. We pursue the same objective. But technology alone is not enough. For electronic commerce to develop you need at least three things:

- technology,

- suppliers offering goods and services on-line;

- consumers willing to buy goods and services on-line.

Focusing on the last requirement, namely the demand side of the market, I would say that the key to consumer participation in electronic commerce is consumer confidence.

And let us face reality. Consumer confidence in electronic commerce still leaves much to be desired. We at the European Commission believe that consumer confidence in electronic commerce should be pursued with the following elements in mind:

Consumers using e-commerce should not be less protected than they are when using traditional forms of commerce;

Consumer considerations and interests must be integrated in all relevant initiatives aimed at furthering the development of electronic commerce. The consumer dimension is not something that should be looked at later. We hear this all too often and I admit that also the European Commission has at times been guilty of such an approach. But with the Amsterdam Treaty with its new provisions on consumer protection coming into force next week, the consumer dimension cannot be overlooked anymore. We have a Treaty obligation to ensure consumer concerns are fully taken into account and integrated in all relevant initiatives. And this is how it should be: Consumer concerns need to be addressed here and now!

Electronic commerce does not take place in a legal or regulatory vacuum. Existing consumer protection rules are generally applicable to electronic commerce. Clearly governments and enforcement authorities are faced with a dilemma, namely that while the law operates on a territorial basis, electronic commerce operates on a global basis. This brings about new challenges. Geographical limitations of legislation are not a new phenomenon. There are and always will be people who will try to exploit this to place them out of the reach of the law. The US Federal Trade Commission regularly publishes information on the latest innovations in this respect. New technologies and new marketing practices lead to new kinds of scams. Or better old scams in a new wrapping (pyramid schemes, fraudulent business opportunities, deceptive diet and medical solicitations, credit repair scams, to name just a few). But with electronic commerce this phenomenon risks getting a completely new dimension, an international dimension. The only solution to this is increased international co-operation and co-ordination.

Consumers need to know what to expect. The same applies to business by the way. In a global market place this means that we have to come to a common understanding of what the key elements of consumer protection are.

In March we met our American counterparts at the Consumer Committee of the OECD to discuss Guidelines on Consumer Protection in Electronic Commerce. Last year in October in Ottawa, the OECD Ministers put forward a strict deadline on the OECD Committee on Consumer Policy to complete its work on these Guidelines. We at the European Commission are committed to seeing the mandate given by the Ministers being fulfilled.

Consumer representatives have been actively participating in the work of the Guidelines. I must say that we have found Consumer International's contributions extremely helpful. Consumer organisations should work together and continue to make their views known to Government representatives in the OECD.

Many of the building blocks for consumer confidence in electronic commerce are already available. There are enough bricks and mortar to put together a quite impressive building. Arguments are continuing over the style of the building: should it be classic or modern, renaissance, baroque, solid concrete or flexible modules and so on.

I would plead for this argument to come to an end. In my opinion, the best thing to do is to build bridges, connecting what already exists on both sides of the Atlantic.

If we focus too much on a new building, we risk getting one without windows - windows of opportunity- and lots of back doors.

Governments have plenty of architects. We may be a bit low on master builders and our 'customers' are not always clear on what kind of house it is they want.

So let us work together and try to find common ground in this field and others to ensure that on both sides of the Atlantic consumers enjoy the highest level of protection.

I wish you a successful dialogue.

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