Maltese Minister says New Deal for Consumers “in the best interests of all parties involved”
The Maltese Minister of Justice, Culture and Local government, Owen Bonnici, has welcomed the Commission’s proposal of the New Deal for Consumers, describing it as “in the best interests of all parties involved.”
Speaking at the Consumer Dialogue in Malta, on Thursday, June 14, Mr Bonnici heaped praise on the Commission’s effort to further protect those conducting business in the EU, either as consumers or traders.
“The New Deal is a big deal,” Mr Bonnici said. “It’s remarkable that 56 percent of the EU’s GDP relates to consumer expenditure. The protection of consumers and their experience’s in the marketplace are therefore in the interests of all parties involved.”
In 2017, knowledge and trust of consumer rights in Malta was at 53.3%, a decrease of 3.3% from the previous survey. The Mediterranean island-nation has the largest difference between consumer and retailer trust in the EU, with retailers at the second highest in the EU and consumers at eighth lowest.
The New Deal for Consumer comes following last year’s Volkswagen “Dieselgate” scandal.
At the time, Vera Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, fought Volkswagen over its refusal to compensate EU customers despite doing so in the US. The episode, along with others such as airlines mass cancellations of flights, has hardened Brussels’ view that the EU lacks the legal armoury to tackle cases affecting large numbers of people in multiple countries.
Speaking from Malta on Thursday, Ms Jourová said the Commission wants a stronger Single Market, which will foster growth and job creation but that it cannot be at the expense of consumers.
“Consumers in the EU benefit from some of the top consumer protection rules in the world. But, the world of today is full of challenges,” Ms Jourová said. “For example, global retail markets are ever more complex. And digital markets are becoming a regular part of our lives, in particular where business models rely more and more on users' personal data.”
Speaking in front of a packed house, attended by members of the Maltese business community and consumer rights groups, Ms Jourová touched on a number of issues affecting the modern European consumer, including data protection and the digital economy.
“My grandmother used to tell me that there’s nothing free in this world,” Ms Jourová quipped. “You do not pay with money for "free" digital services, but you provide personal data, for example, for targeted marketing purposes. With the New Deal for Consumers, you must receive clear information about the contract duration and termination conditions of your “free” digital service.”
The Commissioner also talked about the dual-quality of products affecting consumers in Eastern Europe, something she described as “simply not fair.”
“The “Dual Quality” products issue shocked me in particular. We cannot allow companies to break cross-border consumer and single market EU law and harm consumers on such a large scale.”
Ms Jorouvá’s address was followed by a panel discussion, in which members of Maltese consumer rights groups and business representatives discussed the various of the modern market affecting consumers, including: artificial intelligence, digitalisation, and data protection.
As was the case in previous dialogues, the issue of collective redress came up. During the panel discussion, Mr. Andre Fenech, from Malta’s Chamber of Commerce, voiced his concern that the EU is opening its doors to a US-style litigation system, in which law firms benefit the most.
During her speech, however, Ms Jorouvá emphasised once again that the type of collective legal action the Commission is proposing won’t mean more business for law firms but more fairness to consumers.
“It is not about opening the door to US style class actions,” Ms Jorouvá said. “This is about fair compensation for EU consumers, not about more business for law firms.”
Abigail Mamo, from Malta’s General Retailers and Traders Union, said Europe already has a very good level of consumer protection but that the new proposal needs “greater clarity and proportionality on a number of fronts”, especially when it comes to the returned goods policy.
“For example the right of withdrawal,” Ms Mamo said. “Something that was astonishingly accepted before and now we are revisiting the strategy because we have realised we made a mistake. Without asking many questions, you send it and even before receiving the goods, the trader has to refund you. This proposal fine-tunes it, but there is a lot of room for improvement. It leaves a lot of guessing.”
An online survey during the dialogue showed there was still a lack of consensus regarding the question of businesses having to accept returned used goods. 46 percent of respondents thought business should accept returned used goods, even if the customer has used them, while 54 percent think traders shouldn’t have to accept returned products with signs of use.
One participant, both a consumer and a businessman expressed his appreciation for what the Commission wants to accomplish with the New Deal, but warned against over-regulating and its effects on business activity. “Law is good, enforcement is better, but the most important thing is an open market with real competition,” he said.
The event was attended by approximately 70 people, among them members of the public. It was jointly organised by the Commission (DG Justice and Consumers), the Commission Representation in Malta, and Maltese consumer authorities.
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 end November, by which time it is expected to adopt a general approach to The New Deal For Consumers.