Ex­pand­ing our hori­zons

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - 60 YEARS OF EUROPEAN UNITY - Martina Nee In­ter­viewer: John Hearne

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.”

Safety stamp

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.

Alert sys­tem

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...

Ad­ver­tis­ing rules

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.

On­line sell­ing

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.

Re­tail rules

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.

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