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Health and Consumer Protection

Library - Speeches - Commissioner Byrne

Speech by Commissioner D. Byrne to the Round table organised by the national consumer council of Spain on "Perspectives on European consumer Protection Policy" - Madrid 24 February 2000.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Minister, President, it gives me great pleasure to be invited to speak at this round table on the perspectives for European Consumer Policy. This is a good opportunity to reflect on the future for European Consumer Policy as we are going through an interesting, but difficult and fast-changing time.

Nothing illustrates this more than a comparison with what my predecessor would have said at a similar roundtable organised ten years ago. In those days, consumer policy was defined at EU level in very restricted terms - it was essentially concerned with the important, but limited, area of consumer-retailer relations. The resources devoted at EU level were correspondingly limited.

The situation is very different today. EU consumer policy is more than a set of policy measures - it includes a distinct and comprehensive approach to a very wide range of EU policies that have an impact on consumers. As such, it is a core component of the Commission strategic objective to improve the quality of life of all EU citizens. Their role as consumers is an increasingly important dimension of their everyday lives.

In particular, this broader definition of consumer policy means that food safety policy is now very clearly seen from a consumer angle, rather than purely an industrial or agricultural perspective. Unlike my predecessors as Consumer Commissioner, I am responsible for the whole of the food chain. My responsibilities for public health also reinforce the 'consumer-led' nature of food safety policy. Concern for consumer health is the key factor in food safety.

Although my responsibilities have been extended considerably compared to my predecessors, it would be a mistake to see EU consumer policy as limited merely to the work of the Directorate General for Health and Consumer Policy. The Treaty of Amsterdam formalised the concept of integration - that is, ensuring that all EU policies take consumer concerns fully into account. Integration of consumer policy into other policies is thus essential to EU consumer policy. It is one of the challenges I am facing, for example, when we discuss the Internal Market or e-commerce.

On the Internal Market, some progress has already been made. The new five-year strategy for the Internal Market clearly emphasises the importance given to the quality of life of the citizen. The next stage of telecommunications and postal services liberalisation should have consumer concerns at their heart. In addition, passenger protection is central to the next stage of development of air transport.

As you can see, consumer policies are entering the mainstream of Community thinking. With consumer policy now defined more broadly, it follows that we need a broader understanding of consumer concerns. We have to think about issues such as health and safety, price, choice, access and affordability. We need to bring our understanding of key consumer issues up to date.

Part of the new picture will be the recognition that there are many shared interests between consumers and producers. Better quality and service from producers means more business with consumers, and this leads to growth and prosperity for the whole community. And so consumer policy has to be seen as part of the broader framework of policies designed, on the one hand, to stimulate growth and employment and, on the other hand, to improve the quality of life of EU citizens. It is both a social and an economic policy.

Consumer confidence is central to our economies. You could even say that consumer confidence is a driver in the "new economy". Without it, markets either collapse, as shown by the BSE crisis, or they fail to fully take-off, as we are now seeing in electronic commerce in Europe Globalisation, which means that goods and services may be sourced from anywhere in the world, has challenged consumer confidence to a certain extent. Of course, consumer policy also underpins the confidence of ever more health conscious and discriminating consumers. Addressing health and safety, price, choice, access, affordability and the relationship between consumer and retailer is central to overcoming barriers to consumer confidence. It seems clear that achieving this cannot be solely left to the market itself, but we need to mobilise business to provide best practice in the interest of consumers.

The top priority is food safety, given that consumer confidence has been so badly shaken by the food scandals of the recent past. Without a comprehensive and integrated strategy at EU level to restore consumer confidence, the Internal Market itself would not fulfil its full potential.

The White Paper on Food Safety adopted by the Commission in January proposes such a strategy for the first time. It paves the way for a European Food Authority and sets out an extensive programme of streamlining and consolidation of the voluminous existing EU rules.

There are four key aspects to re-building confidence in our food:

  • An integrated approach from farm to table, and in all the food and feed sectors.
  • Clear lines of responsibility - the respective roles of producers, Member States and the Commission will be clarified to eliminate any ambiguity.
  • Traceability - Improved traceability of products will both reassure consumers, allow them to make informed choice and help producers to limit their losses when problems arise.
  • Transparency in the setting of food safety rules

Underpinning consumer confidence is also essential to the reforms of product safety that the Commission will shortly propose. We have to be able to demonstrate that the system of regulating product safety effectively delivers safer products on the market.

The rules that govern consumer confidence in relation to contracts, advertising, distance selling and guarantees are now more or less in place at EU level. Gaps still need to be filled, especially in relation to misleading advertising claims and the distance selling of financial services. Of course, the latter is important for the development of a retail internal market in financial services.

However, if the rules are more or less in place, it is clear that we still have some way to go in ensuring their proper application. This is a general problem. Whether it is through enhancing access to justice for consumers or through improving the effectiveness of public enforcement bodies, we have to ensure that the rules work effectively in practice. This is also key to consumer confidence. As an Attorney General I used to say that good laws are those which are workable and enforceable. Nowhere is this more true than in relation to electronic commerce. At present the enormous potential of e-commerce for consumers, our societies and our economies, is being held back by consumer mistrust in this new medium. Again, the market on its own will not overcome this mistrust - we have an active role to play in fostering the development of an Internal Market in e-commerce.

With this in mind, we are in the process of preparing a three-pronged approach for consumers. This will include the basic legal safety net of the Brussels regulations, a comprehensive system of out of court settlement bodies (ADR) and confidence-building measures.

Finally, the liberalisation and, in some cases, privatisation that has taken place in the so-called "services of general interest" has opened up a new dimension for consumer policy. The changes in sectors, be it transport, telecommunications, postal or audio-visual services or energy can bring great benefits to consumers. However, we need to ensure that the benefits of liberalisation are available to all stakeholders.

A key part of EU consumer policy is therefore to ensure that liberalisation is accompanied by measures which secure consumer goals. Guaranteeing access and affordability through universal service is key. But also we need to build mechanisms which make industries responsive to consumers - by operating transparently and by providing means of complaint and redress that were often unknown in the days of public sector monopoly. In general, a better service has to be given to consumers.

In conclusion, I think the prospects for EU consumer policy are very exciting. The demand for a cogent, well-argued policy has never been greater. Consumer Policy has an essential part to play in making a fairer society and a more successful economy. This implies that consumers can be heard. I am here to listen.

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