Another lively debate on the New Deal for Consumers took place on Friday, September 14. This time it was in Nicosia, Cyprus, where issues such as online shopping and how companies deal with people’s data also received especial attention.
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.
The New Deal for Consumers will empower qualified entities to launch representative actions on behalf of consumers and introduce stronger sanctioning powers for Member States' consumer authorities. It will also extend consumers' protection when they shop online.
In front of a packed audience at Nicosia’s EU House, Head of Unit Consumer and Marketing Law at DG Justice, Blanca Rodriguez Galindo, reiterated what the Commission has been saying for months. “We are going to make digital services subject to the same rules on information requirements and right of withdrawal as any purchase of goods or services whether paid with money or data,” Ms Galindo said. “We also want more transparency from online marketplaces. Platforms should make it clear to the consumer about whom she or he is trading with since it impacts on the level of protection.”
Also mentioned was the dual quality of products, the practice of presenting different products in the same branded packaging. Although not really an issue in Cyprus, the Commission has been adamant that such practice is unfair and misleading to consumers.
The New Deal isn’t just about more regulations, however. One of its main objectives is the reduction of bureaucratic burden on businesses.
Dr Christiana Markou, a Lawyer and University Lecturer at the European University of Cyprus, welcomed the proposals. "The most important things in the New Deal is the emphasis given to enforcement and implementation of the legislation," Ms Markou said. "We have a very rich, substantive law for the protection of consumers. What we need now is to allow the consumer to use all these beautiful and rich tools to enforce these laws."
In an ideal world, disputes should be resolved out of court. To that end, the Commission has made a number of mechanisms available to consumers, such as the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Online Dispute Resolution (ODR).
"The framework is there, and for small amounts consumers don't need to resort to court, that's the last resort," said Nevi Agabeu, a Law professor who was sitting in the audience listening to the speakers.
Another issue mentioned was the lack of awareness by large numbers of consumers when it comes to their rights and obligations when a dispute arises. "What we see here is that consumers, in their large proportion, do not know their rights and procedures when settling disputes," said a member of the Socialist Party Trade Union in the audience. "Businesses should also be encouraged to inform consumers about their rights," he said.
Charalambos Rousos, Acting Director of the Consumer Protection Service, expressed his support for the New Deal. Mr Rousos welcomed provisions such as fining companies a minimum of 4 percent of their annual turnover for violating consumer rights. However, he expressed some concern in regards to the possible reduction of consumer protection due to the amendments to the Right of Withdrawal.
Similar to what was said in Greece on Thursday, some stakeholders in Cyprus worry that the new rules might hurt small and medium sized businesses, which find it harder to adapt to new legislation than larger companies.
Stephanos Kursaris, Secretary General of KOPEK, a shop-owners association, noted: "This is a very important reform for SMEs. I hope there will be more links between fair competition and respect of consumer rights, which the Commission only mentions."
Around 60 key stakeholders, including Charalambos Rousos, Acting Director of the Consumer Protection Service, EESC representative Nicos Epistithiou, members of different Cypriot consumer and business organizations, National Authorities and Ministries, Academia and citizens, participated in the very lively and constructive Cypriot
Consumer Dialogue to discuss and better understand issues related to the New Deal for Consumers package.
As the Consumer Dialogues travel outside of the Brussels bubble over the next two months, preparations are being made for a November 28 meeting in Brussels of all stakeholders from the Member States as well as EU level bodies and organisations.
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.