President. The next item is the report by Klaus-Heiner Lehne, on behalf of the Committee on Legal Affairs, on European contract law and the revision of the acquis: the way forward (2005/2022(INI)) (A6-0055/2006).
Klaus-Heiner Lehne (PPE-DE), rapporteur. – (DE) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to begin with a somewhat heretical remark. The important reports are discussed in this House shortly before midnight, and the esoteric drivel in the form of resolutions is discussed during the day at prime transmission time. If we are to talk about the question of parliamentary reform – and there is, of course, a proposal to this effect from the President of the House – I would say that, before we deliberate seriously on the curtailment of Members’ rights, we should talk about giving the plenary agenda a more logical structure in which important subjects are given their rightful place.
This report is about European civil law. In simple terms, its aim is to have the Commission try to shape broad areas of European civil law by creating a common frame of reference in a particular field of activity in the first instance in such a way that it will affect the legislation of the Member States and of the European Union in the field of civil law for many generations to come.
There is even something of a debate on whether the work we are considering here could ultimately lead to a uniform European code of civil law. Although I say that with all due caution, what we have here is nevertheless a truly significant and decisive project.
This House has, for many years, been monitoring the efforts of the European Commission with regard to a code of European civil law and has expressed its approval and lent its support in numerous resolutions since 1989. That is also our intention in this proposal for a resolution.
We have come to a very critical stage. At the present time, work is under way on the frame of reference and on the revision of the established body of Community law and practice in the realm of consumer protection. The reason why this stage is critical is that the present efforts will determine whether this work is ultimately crowned with success or whether it falls short of the desired outcome, and this depends very much on the quality of the substance that emerges from these present efforts.
Parliament therefore takes the view that, although what the Commission has launched is right in principle, it requires improvement in several respects. For example, we have the impression that the cooperation between the research groups that drafting the common frame of reference on contract law and the practitioners on the network side is not functioning properly. We want to ensure that the practical experience brought into this project by the network specialists is considered by the research groups in an appropriate framework. This is something for which we in the Committee on Legal Affairs are pressing vigorously.
Another important point is that a distinction must be made between business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions. We want to protect consumers, but traders must also have broad scope to conclude contracts with each other, and this scope must not be restricted by excessive red tape.
There is also a need to ensure that what is currently being developed within this frame of reference and will subsequently form a very considerable body of soft law, at least at the European level, and have an impact on all legislation in the field of civil law is not simply created without any involvement on the part of the legislative institutions, namely Parliament and the Council. It is not enough for Parliament and the Council to deliver their opinions on the drafting procedure; they must also be involved in the development of the substance of this frame of reference, because it will be they who adopt laws enshrining elements of the frame of reference and who must publicly justify the adoption of those laws.
Against this background it is important that Parliament is also involved on the substantive side. From our perspective, this should involve two processes. Firstly, the Commission should keep Parliament constantly and comprehensively informed of progress in the formulation of the frame of reference and the improvement of the body of Community law and practice relating to consumer protection, and we should have the opportunity to pronounce ourselves at any time within a continuous process.
The second process, for which we have already taken the first organisational steps in this House, is the establishment of a project group comprising the rapporteurs and shadow rapporteurs of both participating committees, a working party whose purpose would be to keep a close eye on the work of the Commission, the research groups and the network as well as providing political guidance on particular issues of legal policy, such as the issue of the demarcation line between business-to-business and business-to-consumer transactions.
From our point of view, these are crucial matters which still require regulation and in which greater parliamentary involvement is both welcome and necessary. These are the key elements of the resolution on the table. Let me finish by saying that I believe this is the most significant project being undertaken by the European Commission and the other institutions in the course of the present legislative term. It is the most significant by far, which is why I would certainly expect us to try and bring it to a successful conclusion. It will also play an important part in determining whether the single European market continues to converge for the benefit of everyone – consumers and traders alike.
Margot Wallström, Vice-President of the Commission. Mr President, firstly I would like to thank Mr Lehne for his report. The Commission wholeheartedly welcomes Parliament’s interest in the common frame of reference – CFR – on contract law and in the review of the consumer acquis. The Commission is happy to see that Parliament shares very similar views regarding the need to deliver a high level of consumer protection in the revision of the consumer acquis.
Parliament considers that the development of the CFR is unpredictable and that the ultimate long-term outcome might be a European code of obligations, or even a full-blown European civil code. I would stress that the Commission, and Commissioner Kyprianou personally, has clearly and repeatedly stated that it has no intention of producing a European civil code. The Commission’s view is that the CFR will be a better law-making toolbox for achieving coherence when revising existing legislation and adopting new instruments in the area of contract law, particularly consumer contract law, on which the currency of our work has been refocused.
The legal form of this instrument, and if and to what extent it could be binding, has yet to be decided. If the Commission considers that this toolbox will be of more than internal use for the Commission, such a decision would clearly be a political decision and would need to be taken by the Commission, Parliament and the Council.
The Commission understands fully that Parliament wants to be kept informed of and involved in the ongoing work on the CFR. We therefore welcome Parliament’s involvement in the CFR process, in particular the creation of the working party. The Commission will continue to keep Parliament informed of developments in the most appropriate way. Commissioner Kyprianou will discuss regularly with Parliament’s relevant committees the progress of CFR work and, in particular the intermediate politically relevant steps.
I would like to conclude by thanking Parliament for its encouragement and support for our work on this important dossier.
Diana Wallis (ALDE), draftsman of the opinion of the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection. – Mr President, I welcome very much Mr Leinen’s report, so much so that my own political group will vote against any amendments to it. Despite all this agreement and it being so late in the evening, we are all of the opinion that it is essential to have a debate on this important report.
In the opinion for the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, we highlighted the fact that this is an exercise in better law-making. The CFR and the review of the acquis can make a huge contribution to the better functioning of the internal market. However – and this was our central preoccupation – the compilation of the CFR is a political exercise: it involves political choices. Therefore, the European Parliament must be fully involved as a co-legislator.
We all welcome the setting-up of the project group, which augurs well for good future cooperation with the Commission. However, we still have a concern that the Commission should present a coherent approach. That means that not only DG Sanco, but also DG Justice and DG Internal Market should be fully involved in the process.
Above all, this project is of practical importance for the internal market, both consumers and businesses alike. In my own country – which is not known for its support of anything that might even start to resemble a European contract code – an independent survey by a big law firm highlighted the transactional costs of an incoherent contract law in the internal market.
I believe this demonstrates what many of us have always felt: practical advances in EU civil law like this can assist to make Europe more popular if we get it right. However, in order to do that we must have discussion and debate. This is not just a technical legal exercise, it is a political one. If we ever get to the stage of a European contract code, then we cannot risk that it suffers the same fate as the proposed Constitution last year. It has to have political support, and I hope that we, together, have put in place the appropriate mechanism to ensure that we achieve that result.
Giuseppe Gargani, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. – (IT) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, as the Commissioner said just now, in September 2005 the Commission submitted a first annual report on the state of progress of European contractual law and the review of the Community acquis. One of the measures envisaged, as the rapporteur pointed out, is the creation of a common frame of reference for Community contractual law.
The Commission believes that the scope of the common frame of reference can include the possibility for national legislatures to use it even in sectors not governed by Community law. The Corpus Juris in force, which mainly relates to consumer protection, should be improved and a set of common principles should be added to it representing a certain but flexible reference point for citizens and legal practitioners.
Mr Lehne, the rapporteur, who performed valuable and important work in committee, and who this evening has given us his comments on a provision of historical importance, has tried in his report to delineate a strategic perspective for future activity by the Commission, naturally involving the European Parliament, and strongly calling for its involvement.
I would like to say, in order to underline the work that the rapporteur has done, as chairman of the Committee on Legal Affairs, that a major process of harmonisation and in fact of codification has been begun for sectors of European contractual law. This is an historic event, even over and above the results that may be obtained, because until now Community harmonisation had been done with a scope either more restricted or more extensive than the relevant directives: the consumer contract, to which the directives on the application of electronic and computer technologies were added.
From now on, the tasks are no longer restricted to the coordination of the law in force, but will be projected into the future, towards uniform definitions of terms set out in the directives, the identification of common principles relating to contracts which will be able to reduce the marked differences. This is a process of regulation and knowledge which will be able to go beyond the law in force in order to form a modern code: there was even an idea that we might achieve a uniform code of contractual law, formulated through principles. We would start by examining directives that contradict the implementing provisions of the Member States and would define a sort of common base of Community contractual law.
I will finish by saying that the process of convergence of private law and in particular European contract law is a reality, driven both by Community law and by the development of comparative analysis studies. I support the primary role of civil law: civil law and contractual law are there to strengthen European citizenship and economic and civil exchanges in Europe.
Manuel Medina Ortega, on behalf of the PSE Group. – (ES) Mr President, I believe that this is the right time of day to be discussing this issue, because in reality it is an issue that requires reflection; we have very little to play with. This is not a red-hot debate on something that is going to be done now: it is something that the Commission is beginning to do and that we in this Parliament are supporting.
Those of us who are here are probably amongst the few who believe in this objective or in this possibility, but I do not believe that a unified market, a European Union internal market, is possible without a contract law.
When I talk about contract law, that is precisely what I mean: law. I am concerned about the Commissioner’s statements to the effect that we do not know what kind of legal instrument we are going to have. There is no soft law in the European Union; the European Union’s great advantage is that it has developed a solid law, a positive law, which is applied by courts of justice, and we need precision.
The most important thing in law is legal precision: precision with regard to the nature of the obligations and precision with regard to the content. I therefore believe that it is important that we begin to think about defined legal instruments of an obligatory nature that are not merely recommendations. Self-regulation, co-regulation or soft law will not be able to resolve the legal problems in this area.
In this regard, the Commission’s report does not just refer to the possibilities of a contract law, but also to a revision of the acquis in the field of consumer protection.
I believe that we must bear in mind that nobody can take the view at this point that, with regard to contracts, the consumer can be treated in the same way as a company. Relations between consumers and companies are of a different legal nature and the current legislations must recognise it. That is the intention of the amendments by Mrs Berger and Mrs Patrie: to maintain a degree of protection for consumers.
In any event, I would like to thank Mr Lehne and Mrs Wallis for the work they have done and also to thank the Commission for persisting in this direction, because I believe that the future of the European Union will have to be shaped by means of a private law, as Mr Gargani has said, and, in particular, in the most immediate future, by means of an obligatory law in the field of contracts and not by means of mere recommendations.