In their role as consumers, ordinary EU citizens are key players in the Union’s new frontier-free single market. The Union has in fact incorporated, as the basis of its consumer policy, the protection of the five fundamental rights which lie at the heart of national policies. These are:
1. The protection of consumers’ health and safety
Only products which will not endanger health or safety may be put on the market. This means setting safety requirements, providing full information about potential risks, and protecting consumers against physical injury.
2. The protection of consumers’ economic interests
There is for example a general ban on misleading advertising and unfair terms in contracts with consumers.
3. Consumer rights to information and education
Consumers need to be put in a position where they can make an informed choice among goods and services offered. This includes objective information on the features and price of the items available. Consumers also require proper information about their efficient and safe use.
4. The right to redress
Consumers have the right to receive advice and help when seeking redress for faulty products or for injury or damage resulting from the use of goods and services. There need to be simple, affordable and rapid procedures for settling complaints and claims.
5. Consumer representation and participation
Representatives of consumers need to be present in decision-taking procedures on issues of concern to them at local, national or EU level. At Union level, this covers not only specific consumer issues but also other relevant policy areas like food laws, transport, competition policy, financial services, and environment.
When the Community (the former name of the European Union) adopted its first consumer program in 1975, it focused on the practical application of the five principles. The first result was a number of directives which were adopted over the next 10 years covering among other things the safety of cosmetic products, the labeling of foodstuff, misleading advertising, consumer rights in door-step selling, product liability and the provision of consumer credit. In addition to its program of legislation on consumer protection, the Union took steps to make sure the interests of consumers are taken into account at local and EU level. It has supported the development of national consumer organizations and five major EU-wide organizations with consumer interests.
– The European Consumer’s Organization (BEUC),
– The Confederation of Family Organizations in the European Union (Coface),
– The European Community of Consumer Cooperatives (Eurocoop),
– The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC),
– And The European Interregional Institute for Consumer Affairs (EIICA)
Internally, the European Commission created an independent Consumer Policy Service in 1989 in order to give more authority and a higher profile to the implementation of consumer policy.
According to the data of 1991, nearly 64% of Community GDP is devoted to private consumption, the highest proportion being 70.3% in Greece and the lowest
52.5% in Denmark (63.4% in UK). The remainder of the GDP is devoted mainly to financing investments and the collective consumption of general government.
On average, Europeans devote 20% of their ‘consumption’ budget to food (ranging from 37.8% in Greece to 16.6% in Germany, 21.5% in the UK) whereas 17.2% covers housing expenditure (27.8% in Denmark as against 10.3% in Portugal, 18.5% in the UK). There are also marked disparities in spending on leisure and education (4.3% in Luxembourg compared with 10.5% in Ireland, with a UK average of 9.7%).
There is plenty to be done, even after the legislative program set out in the Maastricht Treaty on European Union is completed. The single market, like any other, needs to balance the interests of buyers and sellers if it is to operate efficiently. This means not only fixing additional rules for consumer protection but also ensuring that existing ones are applied correctly (which is not always the case).