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Health and Consumer Protection

Library - Speeches - Commissioner Byrne

Speaking points for Commissioner David Byrne - Meeting between Commissioner David Byrne and a delegation of Italian consumer associations, Friday 7 April 2000, Rome

- I am very pleased to be able to meet you here in Rome. I would like to thank you for finding the time to attend this meeting. This is for me an excellent opportunity to reflect with you upon the future for European Consumer policy, as we are going through interesting, but difficult and fast changing times.

- Since August 1998, Italy has had a new consumer law and I am very impressed with it. I think it is essential for a modern society to be able to develop a policy aiming to protect its consumers. I understand that the National Consumer Council, which you represent here today, has already started to play an important role in Italy and I am convinced that it will continue doing so that the consumer voice is heard well.

- As you know, at the European level, we have an EU consultative body dealing with general consumer policies, the Consumer Committee. I attach great importance to its work on the shaping of consumer policy and as a forum for dialogue not only with the Commission, but also between consumer representatives from all the Member States. As you may know, the Consumer Committee is currently being reformed and we will soon start the nomination procedure for members. I am very pleased to hear that yesterday you selected a highly qualified representative in the Committee in the person of Ms Bartolini.

- If we had organised this round table ten years ago, I think we would have been talking about a far more narrow agenda. In those days, consumer policy at EU level was defined in very restricted terms: it was essentially concerned with he important but limited area of consumer-retailer relations. Resources devoted to consumer policy at EU level were correspondingly limited.

- The situation is radically different today. Consumer policy is seen as a core component of the Commission strategic objective to improve the quality of life of all EU citizens. This broader definition of consumer policy means, for example, that food safety policy is now very clearly seen from a consumer angle, rather than an industrial or agricultural perspective. I have now a mandate covering the whole of the food chain. Concern for consumer health is the key factor in food safety. I will come back to this in a moment

- Another important element which I would like to stress is the fact that consumer policy is not limited to the work of the Directorate General for Health and Consumer policy in Brussels, The Treaty of Amsterdam formalised the concept of integration of consumer policies into other EU policies. This implies that all EU policies should take consumer concerns fully into account. I will give you a concrete example: the new five-year strategy for the Internal Market clearly states its objective of improving the quality of life of European citizens, in parallel or in addition to enhancing economic competitiveness. The next stages of liberalisation of telecommunications and postal services should have consumer concerns at their heart.

- We have to think about issues such as health and safety, price, choice, access, information and affordability. We have to think, and this is close to the heart of an ex Attorney General, about what is the best type of regulation for a specific issue, and about enforcement. Good laws are for me those which are workable and enforceable

- Consumer confidence is central to our economies. The top priority in the past months has been food safety, consumer confidence has been badly shaken by a number of food scandals and we clearly needed a comprehensive and integrated strategy at EU level.

- This is why we launched the White paper on food safety last January. There are four aspects in rebuilding confidence in our food: (1) an integrated approach from farm to table, involving the whole chain of feed and food activities (2) a clear line of responsibility with a clear definition of the roles of producers, Member states, Commission (3) Traceability to allow consumers to make an informed choice and help producers to limit their losses when problems arise (4) transparency. We have suggested creating a European food authority with key functions for scientific risk assessment and risk communication. Let me stress also that, for me, the Authority should also be able to inform the consumers positively, tell them about progress in nutrition, for example, and not only about bad news!

- I should also mention the Communication on the use of the Precautionary principle when science is uncertain but risks exist. I could develop this if you so which in our discussion.

- Consumer confidence is also a driver in the "new economy" .We have an active role to play to make sure that consumers can take the full advantage of the developments of e-commerce. Consumers mistrust does not allow them to rep the benefits of greater choice, good service, and lower prices. Did you know that for every 100 US $ spent on US internet websites, at least 29 come from EU customers and that in Western Europe US retailers already have a 20% share? This shows missed opportunities for European business and consumer alike.

- With this in mind, I have identified the following three key areas to prop up consumer confidence: (1)identifying "best business practices" such as trust marks and codes of conducts, credit card charge backs, (2) alternative dispute settlement mechanisms to do our best to prevent legal action. Legal action is costly and time consuming. "Preventive" action should be sought. We have now proposed a network of extra-judicial bodies at European level the EEJ-Net (the European extra-judicial network) to help solve cross-border disputes, (3) access to justice as an ultimate resort for consumers but where they need to be reassured that redress can ultimately be sought in their own court and according to their own law.

- I could also mention our recent proposal to amend the General Product Safety to ensure that only safe products are placed on the market. I could also stress the importance of rules that govern consumer confidence in relation to contracts, advertising, distance selling, consumer credit, misleading advertising where we are working to improve current rules, to fill gaps We are also monitoring closely euro-banking charges

- . But there are so many important subjects we can talk about. This is why I am so much looking forward to our discussion this morning.

- For me, dialogue, learning from another is essential. Consumer policy has a role to play in making a fairer society and a more successful economy. This implies that consumers can be heard. I am also here to listen.

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