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More power to consumers - 19/03/2010

Ideas sought on how to improve train, energy and banking services - a major cause of headaches for consumers in Europe.

A recent EU survey found most consumers are unhappy with the bus and train services in their cities, with many also complaining about banking services and their power and gas companies.

So it is no surprise that services - particularly transport, energy and banking - are the focus of an EU conference on consumer policy this week.

The two-day event was open to policy-makers, consumer advocates, industry representatives and other interested groups. For many, it was their first opportunity to meet with the EU's new commissioner for consumer affairs, John Dalli.

The EU is trying to develop a common approach to consumer policy in Europe, both to protect consumers and to eliminate barriers that undermine trade. But this is proving difficult.

Products, services and sales tactics are becoming ever more sophisticated, presenting consumers with increasingly complex choices. Meanwhile European markets are evolving rapidly in response to electronic commerce (e-commerce) and the globalisation of trade.

The EU has also had 175 million new consumers to contend with since its expansion in 2004 and 2007. And the introduction of the euro has made it easier for Europeans to shop across borders.

All these changes have muddied issues of access, choice and fairness in consumer policy. It is hoped the conference will deliver ideas to inform future decision-making.

Six workshops were on offer, covering a range of issues including bank account fees, finding the right service provider and sustainable urban transport.

In a speech marking European consumer day earlier this month, Commissioner Dalli said he will pursue efforts to develop a set of common and clear rules and see that member countries enforce existing laws.

Last year, the commission set out five priorities for boosting compliance with consumer protection rules, including better monitoring of the market and more cross-border cooperation.

The commission is also planning more ‘sweeps' - surprise market checks by enforcement authorities in several countries at the same time. Recent sweeps have targeted Christmas lights and mobile phone services.

Consumers and the EU

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