"New Deal for Consumers" gets warm welcome in Latvia
After visiting Lithuania on Thursday morning, DG JUST officials headed to Latvia in the afternoon to once again talk to citizens and other stakeholders about the New Deal for Consumers.
In April this year, the European Commission issued a new package of proposals designed to increase the protection afforded to consumers while also seeking to reduce administrative burdens for businesses. The Commission labelled the initiative a "New Deal for Consumers."
While EU legislators and stakeholders found the existing rules to be fit for purpose overall, there are some areas in need of improvement, namely awareness and enforcement of the rules, not in the least for online shopping.
According to the Latvian Startup Association, the amount of payment-based startups in the country is on the rise, with 70% of new startups in the FinTech or e-commerce field.
But in this part of Europe the issue of the dual quality of products -- in which items marketed under the same brand allegedly showed different levels of quality depending on which country they were being sold – is the one issue closest to people's hearts.
On Thursday, the Latvian State Secretary for the Ministry of Economics, Ēriks Eglītis, echoed the sentiments expressed by Commission officials in previous dialogues when he said "discrimination of consumers in Europe cannot be accepted."
Mr Eglītis finished his remarks by making it clear that this isn't about favouring consumers over businesses and that for the market to thrive both sides must respect the rules.
Baiba Vītoliņa, Director of the Consumer Rights Protection Centre of Latvia said consumers and traders need to find a “common-ground” when a dispute arises, and expressed her optimism towards the new legislation being proposed by the Commission.
How the new consumer proposals are going to affect banking laws, in particular the relationship between customers and financial institutions was also discussed. Although banks operate a little different from traditional companies, consumers can still apply the new rules of the New Deal, such as collective redress and right of withdrawal.
In Latvia, just like in the previous dialogue in Lithuania, Director-General for Justice and Consumers Tiina Astola was adamant that the EU's collective redress would be nothing like America's class-action system.
A little over a decade after it regained independence during the demise of the Soviet Union, Latvia was welcomed as a member of the European Union in May 2004.
For centuries the small Baltic nation of two million was primarily an agricultural country, with seafaring, fishing and forestry playing a key role on the economy. But like its Baltic neighbours, Latvia has made a rapid transition to the free market since the early 1990s.
Andrejs Vanags, from the Consumer Protection Association of Latvia, welcomed the new proposals, but was sceptical about the reform on the right of withdrawal.
"The Commission proposal is now to deprive the consumer of a right when he abuses this right,” Mr Vanags said. "It is very tough. Sellers do not complain about used goods. The problem is that they do not know how to apply their rights. I can add that a consumer cannot fight a seller if he no longer has the product in his hands."
Laila Medin, from the Ministry of Justice, although optimistic, was also cautious. Ms Medin called for patience and understanding from all parties involved, pointing out that rules which are imposed on people generally don't tend to stick.
"This is the first time the EU wants to apply collective redress actions," Ms Medin said. "It should see that people want to use it.”
Contrary to other Member States, Latvia doesn’t yet possess any form of collective redress for consumers enshrined in law. The country’s Justice Ministry is currently in negotiations with stakeholders to change that.
Although there are still questions from the general public and consumer rights advocates, the Commission will continue to work with the Member States to iron out any differences.
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 November, by which time it is expected to adopt a common approach to The New Deal For Consumers.