The Portuguese Secretary of State for Trade, Paulo Alexandre Ferreira, highlighted the importance of raising ‘young, conscientious consumers’, as Lisbon hosted this year’s seventh Citizens’ Dialogue on the New Deal For Consumers.
Speaking in front of an audience of almost 100 people in a ballroom inside the Ministry of Finance in sunny Lisbon, Mr Ferreira said Europe must be ‘alert’ and able to move quickly in a fast-changing marketplace.
“Today, changes happen faster than they did in the past. We need to be alert and we need to be prepared to react to those changes,” he said.
Portugal, a country of 11 million people, was named the world’s best tourist destination in 2017. Over the last five years tech startups, attracted by Lisbon’s low cost of living and year-round sunny weather, have made the Portuguese capital their home, bringing with them a new kind of European consumer.
Talking about the right to withdrawal, one of the tenets of the New Deal for Consumers, Francisco Fonseca Morillo, Deputy Director General for Justice and Consumer, said that it must be preserved, but not at the expense of “honest traders.”
“The right to withdrawal, the right to receive the money back, must be warranted,” he said. “But we must reassure and protect honest traders against misuse [of the law], especially online.”
The New Deal for Consumers has faced some resistance from the business community, who feel unfairly targeted by the new rules, and fear the legislation being proposed might open the doors to a US-style class action system.
Portugal already enjoys some of the strongest consumer protection legislation among Member States, with the right of withdrawal a customary practice.
Following Mr Morillo’s key note speech, there was a lively panel discussion on a number of aspects of Portuguese consumer law.
Luis Silveira Rodrigues, Vice-President of the Portuguese Consumer Rights Association, DECO, highlighted not only the importance of the legislative reforms of the New Deal, but the political will behind the new proposals.
“We need to appreciate the political will that’s behind the enforcement of the rights for consumers,” he said. “This means that the Commission is clearly thinking about the future of Europe with this New Deal for Consumers.”
Sandra Passinhas, Law Professor at Coimbra University, praised the possibility of collective redress included in the New Deal, brought forward following Volkswagen’s “dieselgate” scandal.
But there were also some contentious voices. Professor Jorge Morais Carvalho, from the University of Lisbon expressed his disappointment at the new proposals, claiming they didn’t go far enough.
“I’m going to be a little negative here and say this package has been a disappointment,” Mr Carvalho said. “After so many years debating, after the refit and the fitness checks, this package feels like little progress has been made.”
From the local business community, similar to the reactions in other Member States, the issue of collective redress remains a significant sticking point.
Jorge Jordão, from the Portuguese Association of Distribution Companies, warned against excessively punishing companies in a public forum when things go wrong.
“We need to be careful to not start a culture of name and shame, which can be very dangerous for businesses, he said.
The panel also spent some time discussing how the advent of the internet has changed consumer habits in Portugal. In 2009 only 48 percent of the country’s population had access to the internet. Today that number has risen to 73 percent, with authorities predicting that by 2025 more than 90 percent of the country will be online.
Still, there are some ways to go. The economy is formed mainly of micro business (companies with less than 10 employees) which continue to conduct their affairs the traditional way.
“The Portuguese shop online, but the money they spent online doesn’t go to Portugal-based companies,” said Alexandre Nilo Fonseca, from Digital Economy Association. “They go to Amazon, e-Bay and Alibaba.”
As the Consumer Dialogues travel outside of the Brussels bubble over the coming 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.