Consumer rights in the internal market
The EU's internal market, coupled with new technology, has brought huge benefits to its more than 500 million citizens. However, the rise of the internet and increased globalisation have also created new challenges and an ever greater need to protect consumers.
Over its past term, Parliament has consistently championed consumer rights in the EU marketplace, including online shopping, and has made sure support is available when needed.
It has helped make it easier to travel around the EU, for both professional and leisure reasons, and it scored a major success when it struck a deal with national governments forcing cuts in mobile roaming prices, particularly for data.
MEPs fought for food safety, consumer information and animal welfare. They helped improve food labelling and they voted down laws on "novel foods" when national authorities refused to indicate products derived from cloned animals.
During its last plenary session in this term, Parliament voted at first reading on plans to tighten up product safety requirements and market surveillance. MEPs pushed for mandatory "made-in" labelling for non-food products to improve the traceability of goods sold on the internal market and thus strengthen consumer protection in the EU.
Parliament also wants tougher penalties for firms selling non-compliant or potentially dangerous products and the establishment of an EU-wide blacklist of firms who are "repeatedly found to intentionally infringe" EU product safety rules. It also suggests setting up a pan-European database on product-related injuries suffered by consumers.
Parliament has worked over the past five years to protect consumers buying goods and services from traders in other EU countries.
It backed the updated EU consumer rights directive, adopted in 2011, which ensures clear and harmonised rules for consumers across the EU. This includes a 14-day cooling-off period in which consumers can change their minds about purchases made at a distance, clear rules on consumer information and rules on delivery that make the seller liable if a good is damaged during transport.
MEPs focused in particular on online shopping. In 2012, 45% of EU consumers bought goods and services over the internet compared to 20% in 2004, making the internet the most frequently used distance-selling medium today. However, only around 11% of internet users have placed cross-border orders within the EU. The main reason for this is their lack of confidence in cross-border shopping and concerns about their rights.
Parliament helped to improve aid for consumers when things do go wrong. New laws on alternative and online dispute resolution, adopted in spring 2013 and applicable from 2015, will mean that shoppers get easier access to impartial mediation in disputes with traders over goods or services. The idea is to avoid often long and costly court cases. MEPs ensured, in their negotiations with national governments, that arbitration will be free of charge for the shopper or cost only a nominal fee. In general, any dispute should be resolved within 90 days.
To help resolve disputes over online sales, a new web-based platform will be set up in all EU languages to direct consumers to the most appropriate arbitration scheme. The platform will provide consumers with a standard user-friendly complaint form which they can complete in their own language. The platform will then forward the complaint to the arbitrator. Every stage of the complaint can be handled online.
Lower mobile roaming charges
A major achievement of Parliament was to force sharp cuts to the cost of using mobile phones, smart phones and tablets across borders when travelling in the EU under the new roaming regulation.
With the new price caps – which, thanks to MEPs, are lower than the ones originally proposed by the European Commission – the maximum cost of making a mobile phone call abroad fell from 35 cents a minute to 24 cents in 2013 and will fall again to 19 cents from 1 July 2014.
For the first time, data roaming costs were also capped, at 70 cents per megabyte, when the regulation entered into force on 1 July 2012 and they will drop to 20 cents from 1 July 2014. This puts an end to the "bill shocks" experienced by users.
The new rules also enable customers to buy roaming services from suppliers other than their home-based service providers, thereby opening up the market to new entrants, boosting competition and reducing prices.
MEPs are also pushing for an end to roaming charges by 2015.
MEPs also insisted that common chargers should be developed for all mobile phones sold in the EU to reduce waste, costs and hassle for users. Thanks to MEPs, the Commission will now have to come up with concrete proposals for a common charger.
More rights for coach and ferry passengers
Parliament backed new rules to strengthen the rights of coach and boat users. Passengers on coach trips longer than 250 km and ferry passengers are now entitled to a full refund of the ticket price if the journey is delayed for more than one and a half hours. The new rules also include the right to rerouting, meals, refreshments and accommodation for up to three nights where necessary.
MEPs ensured that passengers with reduced mobility can obtain assistance, provided they inform the company of their needs no later than 36 hours before departure.
Extended protection for package holiday travellers
MEPs also pushed for more protection of holidaymakers who put together their own package holidays on the internet when they started work on a revamp of the EU rules on package holidays.
In forthcoming negotiations with the member states, MEPs will insist that the new rules on package holiday protection cover more travel arrangements, that tour operators do not significantly raise the price or change the flight schedules after a package has been bought and that holidaymakers are not stranded if their airline or tour operater goes bust.
More information on food labels
Parliament passed a major update to legislation on food labelling in 2010 to help consumers make informed and healthy choices. The new rules will require key nutritional information – such as energy, fats, sugars and salt – to be displayed prominently on food labels. Labelling of country of origin will be extended to all meat products. Rules on "best before" and "use by" dates will be more consistent and allergens will have to be specified clearly among the ingredients.
No to cloning for food and no to misleading consumers
Parliament rejected new legislation on so-called novel foods when it became clear that member states did not want to guarantee clear labelling to inform consumers if products were derived from cloned animals. MEPs, in line with overwhelming public opinion, are concerned about animal welfare issues in cloning and consumers' right to know. New proposals are in the pipeline.
MEPs also stepped in to prevent the authorisation of a substance known as "meat glue" which can be used to attach scraps of meat into single "steaks". Given the risk of misleading consumers, Parliament vetoed its approval.
Strict safeguards for GMO crops
MEPs are insisting on maintaining strict safety testing of GMO crop varieties at EU level, as well as keeping in place the labelling rules to ensure that consumers are fully informed.
Parliament is backing proposals to let EU countries decide for themselves whether or not to grow genetically modified crops. MEPs want countries to have a full range of options at their disposal to ban or restrict any cultivation of crops without falling foul of international trade rules. Parliament is ready to negotiate new rules on this with the member states.