Citizens' Dialogue on New Deal For Consumers Resumes in Lithuanian capital, Vilnius
After a long and well-deserved summer break, the Citizens' Dialogues on the New Deal for Consumers are back.
On Thursday, August 30, Director-General for Justice and Consumers Tiina Astola, spoke in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, about the benefits of the new legislation for both consumers and businesses. In front of a packed audience at the European Commission Representation building, Ms Astola assured the existing rules are fit for purpose, but that more awareness is needed from both consumers and traders.
"During the past 30 years the EU has worked a lot on consumer legislation," Ms Astola said. "We really have the highest consumer protection in the world so it was not a surprise when the evaluation said that for the most part these rules are still fit for purpose. At the same time we saw something there is more general, which is that there is not enough awareness and enforcement of the existing rules."
As has been customary whenever consumer dialogues have taken place in Eastern Member States this year, the issue of the dual quality of products was at the forefront of people's minds. Last year, tests and surveys done in several EU Member States, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe, showed that products advertised and sold under the same brand and seemingly identical packaging, in fact differed in composition and ingredients.
The Lithuanian Deputy Minister of Justice, Irma Gudžiūnaitė, had some harsh words for companies and traders who still engage in such practices.
"This situation is not to be tolerated, that Lithuanian consumers have to consume products of lower quality," Ms Gudžiūnaitė said. "We have made this point at other EU institutions and to other Member States as well. If a product is marketed in one way, the quality of the product should be the same."
With the New Deal for Consumers, the Commission wants to avoid two things: over-regulating and putting unnecessary burdens on businesses. "We want to modernise consumer protection and also remove excessive burden from businesses," Ms Astola said. "An important point is to avoid over-regulation. The EU has always been criticised for over-regulating and in this field we really don't want to do that."
Just like it has been said in previous dialogues, Ms Astola assured the public that when dealing with infringements by traders or companies, consumers won’t be able to mount class-action lawsuits like they do in the US, but will be enabled to participate in representative collective redress actions. In EU, the aim is a minimal harmonisation of the maximal penalties when traders are found to be in breach of the law. "We want to harmonise penalties for breaches of consumer law which are at the moment very different in different EU Member States," Ms Astola said.
Another key issue in the New Deal for Consumers package is the right of withdrawal. With the view to safeguard the rights of traders, especially those who conduct their business online, the Commission has made it clear that people who buy a product online, use it, and then try to return it, will no longer be able to do so.
Among the top 23 percent of the most peaceful countries in the world, Lithuania has welcomed the New Deal for Consumers with open arms.
At the talks on Thursday, the Director of the State Consumer Rights Protection Authority of Lithuania, Neringa Ulbaitė, said this was undoubtedly "a most ambitious deal and proposal" which will be very important for both traders and consumers.
But even though there is an abundance of information available about the rights of consumers in Europe, Ms Ulbaitė believes people are still somewhat misinformed about their rights and obligations.
"Part of the consumers still lacks the knowledge and is not sure what to do when they get exposed to breaches and violations of their rights,” Mr Ulbaité said.
Andrius Visockis, Head of Repair Service at JSC Varle, and one the panellists in Thursday's discussion, was quick to remind that consumers have obligations, too.
"Often, disputes arise because everybody asks for rights but nobody proposes obligations. Awareness campaigns are still too low, but they do not include obligations," he said.
During the Q&A part of the event, questions were raised about data protection and the impact of Brexit on consumer rights. Margarita Starkeviciute, a former MEP and a member of the Financial Services User Group (FSUG, a working group of financial consumers), expressed concerns about data privacy and asked who would be responsible in case of data theft, to which Ms Astola said the new GDPR rules would apply. Those rules, however, would be implemented by Member States.
As the Consumer Dialogues travel outside of the Brussels bubble over the coming months, preparations are being made for the Assises des Consommateurs, a November 28 meeting with all stakeholders and representatives from the 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.