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Speech made by Mr Kimmo Sasi, Minister of Foreign Trade at the Assembly of Consumer Associations in Europe, Brussels, 18 November 1999 - Consumer issues during the Finnish Presidency

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to have this opportunity to address you today.

The Finnish Presidency is close to coming to its end. This means that I am in the difficult position of being asked what we achieved in the latest few months.

Six months is not a long time and I cannot say that we have been able to change the world. I would nevertheless like to highlight some issues which have been on our agenda.

The goal of the Finnish Presidency has been to continue the work to improve the position of European consumers. This has been facilitated by the Treaty of Amsterdam, which has strengthened the legal foundation for the EU consumer policy. Of particular importance in this respect is the obligation for the EU institutions to take consumer requirements into account in defining and implementing other EU policies and activities. This is a demanding task which is going to guarantee a lot of work for all of us trying to foster interests of the European Consumers. During the Finnish Presidency we chose to pursue this objective by launching a discussion on consumer protection in services of General Interest.

Services of General Interest

I believe that we all agree that there are some services without which we cannot survive. They are essential for the everyday life. If disturbances occur in these services, we experience problems immediately. Traditional examples of these services are electricity, heat and water.

There are important developments which have created new questions for consumers.

-The role of the State as the provider of these services has altered, when many such services have been privatised and opened up for competition.
-Changes have taken place in the production and distribution of many such services.

-In addition to this, totally new types of services have been developed.

It is clear that the liberalisation of the services of general interest has brought benefits for consumers. There are, however, some areas where consumer interests are not sufficiently safeguarded.

A Presidency seminar to discuss the issue of Consumer Protection in Services of General Interest was organised in Helsinki in September 1999. In the Consumer Council meeting on 8 November 1999, there was an open debate on these questions. The discussions showed that this is an issue which merits attention by authorities, businesses and consumers alike. The Member States’ opinions differ somewhat on whether these issues should be dealt with at the Community level and whether any Community legislation is needed in this field.

I have noticed that this issue is going to be discussed in one of your workshops as well and I am sure you shall have an important contribution to make.

Distance marketing of financial services

A major legislative issue during the Finnish Presidency has been the distance marketing of financial services. Because e-commerce or other forms of distance marketing do not stop at borders, there has already for some time been a need to ensure that interests of European consumers are being adequately addressed by the EU legislation. The European Parliament and Council Directive 97/7/EC on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts was adopted in May 1997. Because of the complexity of the area of financial services, these were excluded from the scope of the General Distance Marketing Directive. In order to address this shortfall, the Commission submitted a proposal for a Directive concerning distance marketing of consumer financial services in the autumn of 1998. Discussions on the proposal started during the Austrian Presidency and continued under the German Presidency. The main challenge has been to ensure adequate protection for consumers while catering for the proper functioning of the Internal Market.

The aim of the Finnish Presidency is to reach a common position during this year. Considerable progress was made at the level of a Council working party. Some questions, however, could not be solved before the Council meeting in November nor in the Council. We are, however, still trying to solve the remaining problems in order to reach a common position or a political agreement in the Internal Market Council on 7 December 1999.

The most difficult question seems to be the level of harmonisation – should it be full harmonisation or minimum harmonisation. The Commission Proposal is based on full harmonisation, which also the European Parliament endorses. Many Member States have, however, prefered minimum harmonisation. Personally I think that the solution could be found somewhere in between. The most important thing for consumers of course, is a high level of protection. This is the goal which we are going to pursue in our efforts to find a solution to this issue.

Food Safety.

Food safety is certainly an issue which has been very topical during this Presidency. A "European Food 2000" Seminar was held in Helsinki on 23 and 24 September 1999 providing a discussion forum for the authorities of the Member States. Attitudes towards food; recommendations of nutritionists and authorities; possibilities of influencing foods eaten in the Member States; considerations relating to food safety; nutritional quality and individual choices as well as challenges of the new millennium were discussed.

The speakers were leading officials from the European Commission, as well as recognised experts in nutrition and consumer policy. Mr Erkki Liikanen, Member of the European Commission, also gave a presentation in the Seminar.

The "European Food 2000" Seminar was the first wide-scoped meeting of experts after the recent food crises in Europe. All in all, the Seminar was a successful meeting between experts and it was widely noted by the media.

At the Consumer Council on the 8th November Ministers had a lively discussion on food safety, which further indicated that food safety is an important issue. Commission presented its ideas to be published in a White Paper on food safety before the end of the year. The White Paper will include the general safety obligation which is seen as a completion of the stable-to-table approach. In addititon to this there is a need to fill in the gaps existing in the present legislation.

The idea of establishing a new European Food Safety Agency is also a part of the coming White Paper. The Agency should strengthen consumers’ confidence in food sold in Europe. The competencies of the possible new Agency should be given careful consideration. The coming White Paper will consider various options, as regards the establishment of the Food Agency. There are mainly two objectives – independent scientific advice on the one hand and accountability on the other - which should be taken into account and reconciled in the best possible way.

As the Finnish Minister responsible for consumer affairs, I would like to say that Finland supports the project to establish a European Food Safety Agency. One of the main targets of the Agency should be the enhancement of European food safety and the related decision-making, as well as increasing the credibility of control and inspection of foodstuffs in the eyes of the consumer. The new Agency should primarily function as an experts’ body, which assists the Commission and national authorities by giving opinions on food safety issues. The Agency must not impair the role of national control and inspection of foodstuffs.

Place of Business.

Should the agengy be created, also Finland is interested in functioning as the place of business of the Agency. Finland could offer high-standard research facilities and education in the various fields of the food industry, and the conditions required for the operations of the Agency would be provided by our well-functioning national food inspection and control system. It should also be remembered that there are not yet any Community-level agencies based in Finland.

Food safety and consumer concerns have also been one of the major issues at Geneva where the run-up to the WTO's Third Ministerial Conference is underway at the moment. The Ministerial meeting which is expected to launch a new trade round will begin in Seattle in eleven days.

The EU underlines the need to ensure that the further liberalisation of trade and the strengthening of multilateral rules contributes towards consumer health and food safety. It is necessary to maintain the right of the WTO members to take precautionary action to protect human health, safety and environment while at the same time avoiding unjustified or disproportionate restrictions.

Enforcement

We have of course touched upon some other issues as well during our Presidency. I would like to mention the issue of enforcement which is most important to ensure the effectiveness of existing EU legislation in the field of consumer protection. This includes correct transposition into national legal systems as well as enforcement in an effective way by the competent authorities in the Member States. In the Consumer Council in November, the Commission presented two reports on the national implementation and application of Community consumer legislation, notably of the Directive on Package Travel and Holiday Tours and of the Time-share Directive.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would finally like to express my appreciation to the work that consumer associations do in ensuring that the voice of consumers is heard. I thank you for your attention and wish you have a useful and productive meeting.

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