Expanding our horizons
Consumer experts outline why air travellers have been among the biggest winners in the six decades since the EU was formed.
With a GDP worth €3,100bn in 2016, Germany was the leading EU economy, accounting for over a fifth (21.1%) of EU’s €16.5tr GDP; followed by UK (16.0%), France (15.0%), Italy (11.3%), Spain (7.5%), Netherlands (4.7%). Ireland was 12th of the EU28 on 1.8% (c.€264.5bn). EU FACT
There are very few areas of consumer life that have not been touched by the EU.
From game-changing projects like the introduction of the Euro to the range of protections you get when you shop online, almost everything you do as a consumer triggers a right or a freedom that can be traced back to one of the EU institutions.
Martina Nee is press and communications officer for the European Consumer Centre (ECC Ireland).
She points out that over the years, a raft of European legislation has been put in place to improve consumer confidence, their rights and protections.
She said: “EU has championed the fair treatment of consumers, required products to meet acceptable standards, and opened up other avenues of redress if something goes wrong. The EU has also ensured that its citizens have access to free information and advice if things go wrong.”
Protecting the health and safety of citizens was one of the earliest aims of the union. Since 1975, only products deemed safe by EU criteria can be stocked for sale on the shelves of EU shops and stores.
Ten years later, Europe saw the introduction of the now familiar ‘CE’ mark, which now appears on a huge variety of products traded on the single market in the European Economic Area (EEA).
The mark signifies that the product has been assessed as meeting the high safety, health and environmental protection requirements of the union. When you buy a new phone, a teddy bear or a TV within the EEA, you can expect to find the CE mark.
CE marking also supports fair competition by holding all companies accountable to the same rules. Crucially, the mark doesn’t just go on goods made within the EEA, but on all relevant products made in other countries that are sold in the area.
In the same vein, the RAPEX Rapid Alert System was introduced in 2004 as a way of alerting the relevant authorities across all member states if a product has been deemed dangerous in any one of them.
Manufacturers and distributors are required by law to alert the authorities if one of their products is unsafe, while weekly reports are issued listing unsafe products that need to be removed from shelves.
The most recent of these reports details over 40 unsafe items that have come to light in the previous seven days. It includes toys which are choking hazards, clothes which contain excessive levels of formaldehyde and a decorative candle that looks too much like a pear...
In the area of consumer rights, a ban on misleading advertising and unfair commercial practices has been in place since 2005.
It is illegal to make false claims for goods and services offered for sale in the EU, while hidden costs are also outlawed. There is also EU legislation in place to protect consumers from unfair contract terms.
To maintain effective protection for consumers, the authorities have had to move quickly to adapt to new products and services, not to mention rapidly evolving sales channels.
The growth in online selling in the past decade is a case in point. These days, the protections in place actually make it safer in many ways to buy online than on the high street.
When you buy something on the web from within the EU, you automatically get a fourteen day cooling off period in which you can return the goods without having to give a reason. There is also a range of protections in the area of information provision, unwanted sales and credit card fraud.
Then there’s the Sale of Goods and Associated Guarantees Directive. A trader selling consumer goods into the EU has to remedy defects — even if not apparent for two years. Consumers are within their rights to get a repair or replacement free of charge; if that’s impossible, or disproportionate, you can ask for a reduction in the price or a refund.
Despite the legislation, disputes inevitably arise between traders and consumers. When that happens, you have a number of options without having to go to the expense and stress of the courts. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and its virtual alternative Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) offers both consumers and traders a range of options for both domestic and crossborder complaints.
ADR includes things like mediation, conciliation or arbitration, through either public ombudsmen or complaints boards, or through private entities. A new EUwide online ODR platform was launched in February 2016 with ECC Ireland hosting the national ODR contact point.
Because the free movement of people as well as goods has been a central tenet of the European project, a range of protections and freedoms have evolved around travel.
Regulation (EC) 261/2004 laid down common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers when flights are delayed or cancelled, or when passengers are denied boarding.
While these rules have got a lot of attention in recent weeks, it’s also worth men- tioning that the EU has also adopted regulations to protect consumers when travelling by road, rail and water — and passengers with reduced mobility.
Holidays and phones
EU legislation protects consumers buying a package holiday by defining a range of obligations for the organisers and retailers, as well as some specific consumer rights. There are also specific protections in relation to timeshares and long-term holiday products.
The EU institutions have been working to get rid of roaming charges for more than a decade now. Ten years ago, checking your voicemail, or just receiving a call abroad cost you an arm and a leg. Since then however, roaming prices have decreased by more than 90%.
In 2015, the European Parliament and the Council agreed to end roaming charges for people who travel periodically in the EU. ‘Roam like at Home’ - where customers pay domestic prices, irrespective of where they are travelling in the EU - will become a reality for all European travellers this June.
Roam like at home doesn’t just cover voice calls, but texts and data too. So if you’ve got an ‘all-you-caneat’ data plan at home, that should extend to France, or Spain, or wherever in the EU you go.
While some telcos are resisting this initiative, the European Commission has been swift to counter any creative interpretations of the new rules. The telcos have of course been resisting all moves to jettison roaming for ten years, but despite delays, the new regime amounts to a great deal for consumers. That’s worth remembering at a time when the EU institutions tend to be dismissed as either irrelevant or on the side of big business.
Since 1975, only products deemed safe by EU criteria can be stocked for sale in EU shops and stores.