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Health and Consumer Protection

Library - Speeches - Commissioner Byrne

Speaking notes for Commissioner Byrne’s meeting with the Consumers Committee, Brussels, 20 September 1999

Let me begin by saying how happy I am that one of my first official functions as Commissioner is to meet you, the Consumers’ Committee, the representatives of the consumer bodies in the Member States and at the European level. I believe that the issues relating to consumer protection are amongst t he most important for our society. The issues are numerous and varied, ranging from electronic commerce and the challenge of new technologies through to food safety and the introduction of the euro.

I think that consumer policy is one of the areas where citizens must see real benefits from the European Union and this preoccupation will be at the heart of my actions over the next five years.

For me and my services to operate effectively, it is important that we are aware of consumers’ concerns. You have the important responsibility to represent those concerns and to ensure that the European Commission is informed of them.

You also have a role to play as a sounding board for the Commission in the elaboration of Community consumer policy. I would hope that we could work jointly and that you would give me your views on policy issues as input to the policy proposals I make to the Commission.

Consultation by way of Green and White Papers will play an important part of my working method. In my hearing in the European Parliament, I announced my intention to issue a White Paper on food safety quickly. Food safety is my number one priority. This White Paper could, for example, set out all the changes that are needed to bring our food safety measures to the highest world standards. I suggested to the Parliament that we set a target of the year 2002 by which all the necessary measures would be implemented.

In the first half of next year, I shall put to the Commission a Green Paper on redress issues covering the situation in the Member States regarding the recovery of legal and judicial fees incurred in Civil Court proceedings ; and also an examination of the possibilities provided by Civil Court procedures in the Member States to represent group interests of consumers in a court procedure.

Simple, low cost and rapid means of making consumer claims should be the goal.

I am aware that in addition to the meetings of the full Consumers’ Committee, many of you are involved in one or other of the working groups that have been established under the auspices of this Committee.

Working groups currently exist on the euro; electronic commerce; mortgage lending practice; unfair contract terms in package travel contracts; soft law in the telecommunications sector; universal service requirements in services of general interest; the WTO millenium round; and marketing practices targetting children. Moreover, the Working Group on CAP Reform has recently delivered an important report.

I am conscious that these working groups involve an important workload for the members of this Committee or for those you designate. But this work is crucial for the policy formulation process : not only for proposals I shall put forward but also for the policy responsibilities of my Commission colleagues. The Amsterdam Treaty foresees the integration of consumer policy into other Community policies. For example, it is clear to me, that policy proposals in the area of the single market and on EMU should take full account of their potential impact on consumers. I shall be giving particular attention to this. I want to see consumer representatives involved as much as possible in the consultative committees set up by the Commission under policies other than consumer policy.

It is also important to have your views on how consumer protection legislation is working in practice. As a lawyer, I am particularly interested in the issue of the efficiency of a piece of legislation in resolving the problems for which it was passed.

To foster a continuing dialogue between consumer representatives and the Consumer Protection DG, I understand an electronic mailing list has been established so that information and viewpoints can be exchanged quickly. One hundred and twenty five consumer bodies in the Union are linked to that system.

The Commission can use this system to contact these associations directly several times a week to forward information, request opinions and suggestions. The associations can therefore contribute to Community consultation without priority being given to one body over another or anybody being excluded from the consultation.

A telephone hotline has also been established so that all the representative bodies can call for any information or documents which might interest them.

As I said at my hearing with the European Parliament’s Consumers’ Committee, I am a firm believer in transparency. I committed myself to maximum transparency in the formulation, presentation and execution of policies and activities within my responsibilities. I shall not forget that commitment now that I have taken office. I see an open relationship with this Committee as part of that commitment to transparency.

The Health and Consumer Protection DG’s website will play an important role in this transparency process. Scientific Committee Opinions, Food and Veterinary Office reports, studies carried out for the DG and other relevant texts are presently put on the website to allow the widest possible consultation. I shall be looking to expand and improve our site to cover the new responsibilities of the DG.

I am aware that the mandates of the present committee members expire at the end of this year. One of my first priorities is to reflect on the whole issue of consumer representation and how consumers’ views are represented to the Commission. This Consumers’ Committee has a key role to play. Since its creation in 1973, the CC has undergone several changes of structure. From 48 members initially, it was reduced to 20. At present, each of the 15 national representatives within the CC is appointed by the Commission on a proposal of the national associations. Each member channels back to the associations in his or her Member State the information and results stemming from the work of the CC.

I want to reflect on the structure, nomination procedures and working methods for this Committee. My objective is to ensure that the Committee is as representative as possible of Europe’s consumers and, at the same time, encompass a range of skills which will enable specialised advice to be given. I would welcome your views on this matter. I recognise that it is not easy to reconcile these objectives.

Of course, the CC is not the only means of obtaining the views of Europe’s consumers. At a practical level, the Committee meets only four or five times a year for one day at a time. Limited resources and your busy schedules do not allow for more than this. Moreover, given the increasing complexity, particularly from a scientific viewpoint, of many consumer-related issues, it is important for the Commission to have access to the best advice possible on these issues. This may not always be available within this Committee.

I understand there are significant differences between the consumer movements in the Member States. In some, the situation is characterised by a few, relatively large consumer bodies. In others, there are many more but smaller bodies. This is often portrayed as a north/south divide.

In the northern Member States, the consumer bodies are generally stronger in terms of both membership and resources. I see it as part of the Commission’s responsibilities to seek to strengthen the consumer movement in those Member States where its forces are weaker and dispersed.

I am aware of recent developments in consumer representation. The Annual Assembly of Consumer Associations, which was launched last year, is to my mind a very important development. It brings together all the consumer associations in the European Union. It provides an annual occasion for debating key issues and for holding a dialogue with the Commission. I shall attend the Assembly in November and I think that the themes being tackled this year (the implications of the WTO Millennium Round, electronic commerce and services of general interest) are all important for Europe’s consumers.

The Action Plan for 1999-2001 rightly gives priority to according « a more powerful voice for the consumer throughout the EU ». I also intend to look at the possible scope for involving consumers in the development and implementation of our public health policies.

This can only happen if consumer associations become more effective, which in part depends on closer collaboration among the associations.

In its cooperation with EU consumer associations, the Commission tries to strike a balance between the Community financial support which it provides and which is sometimes essential to the very existence of associations, and their need to be independent to fulfil their proper role. Community support should be used in particular for training, allowing associations to raise their profile and improve their information and advice to consumers.

Allow me now to say a word about my immediate work priorities. I have already mentioned the White Paper on Food Safety . I also intend to examine carefully the case for a single Food Agency.

Food safety measures should be based on the best science available. One immediate task I have is to designate new members of the Scientific Committees. I intend to ensure that the principles of independence and excellence, which lay behind the nomination of members when the Committees were reformed two years ago, are maintained strictly. It is only on this basis that Scientific Committee Opinions will engender respect from the scientific community, governments and consumers.

I shall also submit to the Parliament and Council before the end of the year an inspection report concerning the foodstuffs sector in the Member States with conclusions and recommendations stemming from inspection missions which have been carried out recently.

Also of relevance to food safety, I and my colleagues, Liikanen and Wallström, will issue in the next few months an important paper on the precautionary principle. I am very much in favour of an appropriate use of this principle. But we need clear guidelines if it is not to be abused at the international level. Our paper should be an important contribution to the international discussions which will inevitably be a subject of debate in the WTO Millennium Round.

Intensive work is also underway on a new framework programme on public health. I do not intend to allow the current crisis of confidence in food safety to totally dominate our agenda. Instead we must also look to address threats to health from other sources : contaminated blood, infections diseases, illegal narcotics for example.

I shall also issue reports before Christmas on the workability of trans-border consumer complaint systems regarding distance selling and comparative advertising ; and on the implementation of the Unfair Contract Terms Directive.

On product safety generally, I intend to propose before Christmas, modifications clarifying the scope and operation of the General Product Safety Directive and making it more effective in relation to emergency situations, exchange of information, cooperation between administrations, enforcement and information exchange with third countries.

So, as you can see, the work programme in the next few months is heavy and ambitious. On the international front, the Annual Assembly and Seattle meetings in November will be important as will the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue in January in Washington, which I hope to attend with you.

I hope that I can count on your support and help in carrying out my responsibilities. My door will always be open to you.

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