Official Journal of the European Union

C 181/89

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on a Consumer Programme 2014-2020’

COM(2011) 707 final — 2011/0340 (COD)

2012/C 181/16

Rapporteur: Ms MADER

On 30 November and 13 December 2011 respectively, the European Parliament and the Council decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 169 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, on the

Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on a Consumer Programme 2014-2020

COM(2011) 707 final — 2011/0340 (COD).

The Section for the Single Market, Production and Consumption, which was responsible for preparing the Committee’s work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 8 March 2012.

At its 479th plenary session, held on 28 and 29 March 2012 (meeting of 28 March), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 109 votes to 11 with 8 abstentions.

1.   Summary

1.1   The Commission has presented its proposal for a regulation on a Consumer Programme 2014-2020, which is part of the follow-up to the Commission communication on ‘Europe 2020 – a strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ and which is aimed at placing the empowered consumer at the centre of the single market.

1.2   The EESC welcomes the fact that the consumer and health programmes are covered by two separate proposals, which should enable each of them to be properly addressed.

1.3   The EESC notes the Commission’s stated willingness to place consumers at the centre of EU policies, which is essential in the current context. It considers that insufficient means have been made available for achieving this goal and wonders how it will be implemented effectively.

1.4   The EESC notes the commitment to establishing statistical means for ascertaining market conditions and monitoring their developments against a very tense background in terms of economic, social and environmental questions.

1.5   The Committee notes the intention to set up monitoring benchmarks which are all the more necessary given that the programme covers a long period in relation to the current situation.

1.6   The EESC stresses the need to raise safety standards for products marketed and services provided within the EU. This will require stepping up checks and ensuring cooperation between the competent authorities, which must have the means to impose effective sanctions.

1.7   The Committee backs the measures aimed at improving consumer information and education programmes and capitalising on best practices so as to provide relevant information from independent sources. It draws attention to the need for verifiable, high-quality information that is available to all sectors of society in order to ensure sustainable consumption.

1.8   Independent consumer organisations play an essential role in this respect. The EESC recommends a significant increase in their financial resources, particularly to allow them to acquire the expertise that they need given the broad scope of their activities. Indeed, maintaining economic balance requires them to be in a position to play their role as a counterweight to the full.

1.9   The EESC calls on the Member States to recognise, support and finance national consumer organisations that participate fully in the completion of the internal market.

1.10   The EESC supports the various initiatives proposed for extending alternative dispute resolution arrangements. However, the Committee notes that there is no reference to collective redress, which is an essential means of ensuring compliance with legislation, as it has underlined in various opinions.

2.   Gist of the Commission proposal

2.1   The proposal aims at establishing a Consumer Programme for the period 2014-2020, as a successor to the 2007-2013 Programme of Community Action in the field of consumer policy. It establishes a financing framework for the EU’s actions.

2.2   The regulation is part of the follow-up to the Commission communication ‘Europe 2020 – a strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’, which calls for citizens to be empowered to play a full part in the single market.

2.3   The proposal was drafted after an impact assessment study had been carried out among the various stakeholders mid-way through the 2007-2013 Programme of Community Action in the field of consumer policy.

2.4   That assessment highlighted the programme’s added value, despite the inadequate funding granted and the fact that new social and environmental challenges were only partially taken into account.

2.5   The programme covering the period 2014-2020 takes account of the various comments made. Actions funded under this programme will have to address issues linked to the economic, social and technical environment, particularly those problems relating to globalisation, digitalisation, the need to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption, population ageing, social exclusion and the problems of vulnerable consumers.

2.6   The new Consumer Programme will support the general objective of the future consumer policy, which is to place the empowered consumer at the centre of the single market.

2.7   According to the Commission, this objective involves better protection for consumers’ health, safety and economic interests, extending their right to information and education and easy access to effective means of redress.

2.8   The Commission proposes to pursue this general objective via four specific objectives:

to consolidate and enhance product safety through effective market surveillance throughout the EU;

to improve consumers’ education, information and awareness of their rights, to develop the evidence base for consumer policy and to provide support to consumer organisations.

to consolidate consumer rights, particularly via regulation and improving access to redress;

to support enforcement of consumer rights, by increasing cooperation between the national enforcement bodies and providing more advice to consumers.

3.   Assessment of the Commission’s proposal

3.1   The EESC shares the programme’s goal of placing the empowered consumer at the centre of the single market. It considers, as the Commission rightly emphasises, that high priority should be given to taking consumers’ interests into account in all EU policies, since their spending accounts for 56 % of GDP and is essential for stimulating growth.

3.2   The EU institutions and national governments must adopt a consumer policy for the 21st century and accept that consumers are the driving force, as well as being key stakeholders who ensure that the market functions well. A truly competitive market needs well-informed and confident consumers. Empowering or strengthening the position of consumers helps improve the quality of products and services and enables the market economy to operate more effectively.

3.3   The scope of consumer policy should be extended and the EU should aspire to seeking greater competitiveness and innovation for its citizens. Consumer policy should be considered as a priority on the political agenda and be included in all relevant policies and work programmes.

3.4   In this respect, the Committee regrets that the funding granted for the Europe 2020 strategy falls distinctly short of the stated intention. In relation to the 500 million consumers making up the EU-27, the amount allocated per consumer per year stands at 5 euro cents. This amount is even lower than the figure for the 2007-2013 programme, which the Committee estimated in its opinion (1) at 7 euro cents.

3.5   The EESC welcomes the broad outlines set out in the programme in the form of the four specific objectives. This programme follows on directly from the previous programme and contains nothing new, despite the impact of new technologies on market conditions. The Committee feels that the methods described for achieving the stated objectives should be more specific and more detailed.

3.6   The EESC calls on the European Commission to produce a list of all those EU programmes that deal with or contribute to promoting and protecting the interests of consumers in order to incorporate consumer policy into all EU programmes.

3.7   However, the EESC considers it necessary to add a fifth objective to the Commission’s proposal, dealing with the representation and participation of consumers. Of course, the EESC welcomes the fact that the Commission programme includes the strengthening of representative capabilities and acknowledgement of support for consumer organisations and their capabilities in terms of expertise. Allowing for better representation of consumers, and strengthening those capabilities, should be a separate objective. In order to ensure that the Commission’s promise to put the consumer at the heart of the EU’s decision-making is fulfilled, the programme should be amended so as to include a fifth objective.

3.8   Part of the Consumer Programme’s budget (for travel expenses, preparatory work and participation in expert groups) should be allocated to that objective in order to allow for better representation of consumers in various expert groups by independent consumer organisations, in cases where consumers’ input is needed. Similarly, where necessary, other EU programmes should allocate a specific budget to supporting input from consumers’ representative organisations

3.9   The EESC reminds the Commission of the need to put forward an ambitious European Consumer Agenda (announced in the Commission’s 2012 work programme for the second quarter of 2012) and to base itself on the principle of empowering consumers in line with the principles underpinning the social market economy and as reflected in the reports adopted by the European Parliament.

3.10   The proposal for a European Consumer Agenda should genuinely seek to empower consumers on the basis of safety, relevant information and education, rights, means of redress and access to justice, together with implementing measures.

3.11   Nevertheless, making European consumers aware of their responsibilities should not result in a transfer of responsibility to consumers. The Consumer Programme should first and foremost create the conditions for a fair and equitable market in which consumers feel confident to purchase at will, wherever they might be. This confidence involves the need to have sufficient impartial information and advice about their rights in order to make informed consumption choices.

3.12   The EESC underlines the importance of matching the timeframes of the European Consumer Agenda and the proposal for a regulation for the Consumer Programme in order to guarantee consistency and quality between the Programme and the strategic objectives.

3.13   As regards the drafting of legislative and regulatory measures by the Commission, the Committee wishes to emphasise the need to guarantee consumers a high level of protection (Article 169 of the Treaty). In this connection, it points out that the chosen level of harmonisation must be appropriate and should under no circumstances lead to or permit a reduction in European consumers’ rights, whatever their country of origin. In this respect, the EESC is opposed to any steps, such as the optional system, which would allow for review of the existing protection, in order to safeguard consumers who are the weaker parties to the contract and who do not always have the means for seeking help.

3.14   Moreover, the EESC considers that consumers and their representatives should receive guarantees that they will be consulted when texts and measures affecting them are being drafted and that more resources should be made available to them.

3.15   The EESC places particular importance on measures for improving product safety across the whole market. It supports the introduction of specific cooperation measures in line with Directive 2001/95/EC (2), together with research to establish new standards or new safety criteria. As regards the problems that will have to be addressed, the Committee wonders what level of resources will be available to the various bodies responsible for monitoring and considers that national information campaigns should be organised, coordinated by the Commission.

3.16   The EESC approves the proposed measures for informing and educating consumers. Improving these two aspects of consumer protection will help give consumers greater knowledge of their rights and thus increase their confidence. In this context, the EESC emphasises that EU legislative texts should be more transparent and easier for the public to understand.

3.17   The Committee supports the creation of databases derived from studies, analyses and statistics which should provide better knowledge of the market for the purpose of framing policies in areas impacting consumers.

3.18   In relation to the DOLCETA programme, which operates under the current Consumer Programme but which will not continue in the same form and at the same scale, the EESC calls on the Commission to find a way of retaining the information and knowledge acquired as a result of that project so as to ensure that the substantial investment involved is not wasted.

3.19   The EESC deems that any initiatives leading to greater market transparency are essential, whatever the area involved (for example, financial products, personal data protection, energy, digital and telecommunications technologies and transport).

3.20   From the consumer policy standpoint, whilst education is fundamental for enabling consumers to become aware of their role, rights and obligations within the market and society in order to adapt their behaviour in line with these aspects, it should nevertheless be emphasised that the lack of consumer education is sometimes used as an excuse by politicians and unscrupulous businesses to shrug off responsibility and limit their efforts to create a consumer-friendly environment.

3.21   The Committee considers it necessary to prioritise enforcing and improving consumers’ rights.

It also supports the Commission’s insistence on the importance of achieving the goal of education and of providing information that is suitable for all consumers.

3.22   In any event, the goals of improving education and information cannot be achieved without involving the various socio-economic stakeholders. The Committee backs the proposal to build on what already exists, so that best practices can be identified, improved if necessary, and put to use so that the measures and tools made available can have a real impact on consumers, which requires that substantial resources be allocated to them.

3.23   We must also focus on educating businesses which are, unfortunately, not sufficiently informed about consumers’ rights. Other EU programmes should offer courses for businesses on consumer protection rights.

3.24   Consumer organisations exist to pinpoint problems that consumers encounter, provide coherent responses and represent their interests. Their action to enforce consumers’ rights helps legal rules to develop.

3.25   Because this central role is devolved to regional, national and European consumer organisations, which require ever broader areas of expertise, the EESC considers that their capabilities should be significantly enhanced by increasing the funding they receive. The Committee considers that assistance to associations at these various levels is very important, particularly in countries where the consumer movement is not sufficiently developed.

3.26   The EESC notes that a quarter of the programme’s budget will be allocated to European Consumer Centres (ECCs). This investment is particularly necessary and is broadly supported by the EESC, which asks the Commission to continue to present even more detailed annual reports on the operation of the ECCs. The EESC emphasises the importance of basing those reports on specific, relevant criteria, so as to draw attention to the fact that this network produces concrete results for European consumers, even if it is not yet as well known as it should be.

3.27   One essential factor is the inclusion in the next consumer policy programme of a proactive, prominent financing mechanism for continuing to develop the consumer movement.

3.28   As regards access to redress, the EESC notes that the Commission makes clear its willingness to prioritise solutions based on co-regulation or self-regulation. It welcomes the initiatives taken by professionals to improve practices. Nevertheless, it reaffirms that so-called ‘soft law practices’ cannot take the place of a legislative or regulatory environment.

3.29   The EESC supports the initiatives undertaken by the Commission to give consumers easier access to alternative dispute resolution options and backs the proposal to monitor their operation and effectiveness. It believes that these mechanisms can only be effective if the systems offered to consumers are independent.

3.30   Nevertheless, the Committee feels that the proposal should be supplemented, since consolidating consumers’ rights also means they must have the appropriate legal means for upholding their rights. As it mentioned in its opinion on the 2007-2013 programme and in its opinions on the collective action system in EU consumer law (3) and on the White Paper on damages actions for breach of EU antitrust laws (4), the Committee proposes making reference to the need to provide greater access to justice and, in particular, to collective redress.

3.31   The EESC supports the proposed measures aimed at ensuring compliance with legislation, particularly the mechanisms for cooperation between the national authorities responsible for enforcing consumer protection laws and the coordination of supervision, which make action more effective.

3.32   The EESC considers that dispute settlement, including on-line settlement, should be kept under scrutiny. It notes that new targets have been set, particularly for the ECCs, whose purpose is to help inform consumers and to settle cross-border disputes. It considers that an assessment during the programme’s operating period is important in order to adjust the amount of funding allocated to them.

Brussels, 28 March 2012.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee


(1)  OJ C 88, 11.4.2006, p. 1.

(2)  OJ L 11, 15.1.2002, p. 4.

(3)  OJ C 162, 25.6.2008, p. 1.

(4)  OJ C 228, 22.9.2009, p. 40.