Greece hosts Citizens’ Dialogue on New Deal for Consumers
With only a few months to go before being sent to the European Council, the New Deal for Consumers continues to be hotly debated in Europe.
Last Thursday it was Greece’s turn to host the Citizens’ Dialogue on the New Deal for Consumers.
The event took place in the National Centre for Public Administration and Local Government, in Athens, and was attended by a number of representatives from consumer and business associations.
In his opening remarks, George Moschovis, Deputy Head of the Representation of the European Commission in Greece, pointed out how President Juncker mentioned Greece in his State of the Union speech last week.
"He mentioned only one country by name and that country was Greece," Mr Moschovis said. "He praised the Herculean efforts of Greek citizens in the past few years to supersede the financial crisis and stand again on their own feet."
The New Deal comes at a time when Greece's bailout program has come to an end, and a new wave of optimism among Greeks is gathering pace.
"The end of the bailouts is expected to bring a about a boost to consumption and we are seeing an increase in the retail sector," said Dimitrios Avlonitis, General Secretary for Commerce and Consumer Protection.
Representing the Commission, Blanca Rodriguez Galindo, Head of Unit for Consumer and Marketing Law at DG Justice, struck a similar tone to previous dialogues.
In her speech, Ms Galindo pointed out that fitness checks done last year revealed that the existing European consumer legislation is still fit for purpose but that some areas need improving.
“Consumers are still not well aware of their rights,” Ms Galindo said. “But also we need to improve and revise the enforcement of these rules. They exist on paper, but they have to be real, they have to be implemented in real life.”
While the EU already has some of the strongest rules on consumer protection in the world, recent cases like the Dieselgate scandal and the mass cancellation of flights by European airlines have shown that it is difficult to enforce them fully in practice.
Greece has welcomed the proposals, but on Thursday representatives on both the consumers and businesses side also expressed some concerns.
Valia Aranitou, from the Hellenic Confederation of Trade and Entrepreneurship, warned about the dangers of creating legislation which might hurt small and medium-sized businesses.
“We want consumers to be protected in a marketplace where businesses will be able to follow the rules,” Ms Aranitou said. “If the cost for businesses, especially small businesses, is huge, in the end it is as if they are being pushed out of the market.”
EU officials, however, have said on numerous occasions that one of the goals of these proposals is to ease the legislative and bureaucratic burden on businesses and it was confirmed also this time by Ms Rodriguez Galindo.
From the consumers' side, Evangelia Kekeleki, Secretary-general of the Greek Consumer Protection Centre (KEPKA) and member of the European Economic and Social Council (EESC), expressed strong opposition to any attempt to reduce European consumer protection rights.
“We agree on the need to modernise and simplify policies aimed at consumers,” Ms Kekeleki said. “However, we are against any reduction of consumer rights in any Member State because of maximum harmonisation of legislation.”
One of the cornerstones of the New Deal is representative action. Under the new rules it will be possible for a qualified entity, such as a consumer organisation, to seek redress through an injunction as well as compensation on behalf of a group of consumers that have been harmed by an illegal commercial practice. In some Member States, it is already possible for consumers to launch collective actions in courts, but now this possibility will be available in all EU countries.
Due to concerns expressed by the business community in various Member States, over the last few months Commission officials have repeatedly said the the EU’s representative action will not be anything like the US’s class action system, in which law firms stand to make huge sums of money.
Announcing the proposals in April, Vera Jourova, the EU Commissioner in charge of the legislation, said: “Representative actions, in the European way, will bring more fairness to consumers, not more business for law firms.”
Victoras Tsiafoutis a Lawyer,and counsel of Greece’s EKPIZO, said he was in favour of representative actions but that in Greece there is a disconnect between injunctions and compensation.
“The provision that connects a compensation action and injunction action is quite problematic,” Mr Tsiafoutis said. “When it comes to injunctions we are doing Ok but when it comes to compensation we are lagging behind.”
After years of tough austerity measures, Greece emerged from its third and last bailout last month, although officials warn the country still has a “long way to go”.
Having been forced to tighten their belts for the better part of the last decade, consumer rights associations say they cannot afford to take on powerful companies on behalf of consumers. To mitigate the costs, Ms Kekeleki suggested the creation of a European fund.
“Member States should create action funds in order to facilitate qualified entities to cope with the expenses involved,” Ms Kekeleki said.
In spite of the small difference of opinions, overall the New Deal for Consumers has been welcomed in Greece. As the Consumer Dialogues travel outside of the Brussels bubble over the next two months, preparations are being made for a November 28 meeting of all Member States in Brussels.
The goal is to iron out any differences before the package moves on to the European Council in December, by which time it is expected to adopt a common approach to The New Deal For Consumers.