President. – The next item is the oral question by Giuseppe Gargani, on behalf of the Committee on Legal Affairs, to the Commission, on European contract law (O-0074/2006 – B6-0326/2006).
Klaus-Heiner Lehne (PPE-DE), deputising for the author. – (DE) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, the issue we are discussing today is one of the most important – I believe the most important – pre-legislative proposals on the EU agenda for this parliamentary term. It is all the more regrettable, then, that this issue, too, is being discussed just before midnight once again, whilst other supposedly ‘important’ issues receive prime-time slots in this House. Incidentally, this is further proof of the urgent need for parliamentary reform.
Nevertheless, I should like to turn to the oral questions. I can count a total of six resolutions to date that Parliament has issued since the early 1990s, repeatedly and emphatically supporting the project to create a common frame of reference. Parliament has done this for the simple reason that, together with legal practitioners – EU lawyers and judges – we are of the opinion that further steps towards common principles of civil law are needed in order to render many European legislative provisions such as the e-Commerce Directive feasible.
In legal disputes, particularly those between consumers and traders concerning small amounts, it is practically impossible for lawyers and judges to apply 25 – or 26 if we include Scotland – different legal systems in the EU in parallel, especially given the strange juxtaposition of the country of origin and country of destination principles, as is the case with the e-Commerce Directive, for example.
That is why we need a higher common standard – I am quite happy to use a harmonised one. There is actually no disagreement about this – there is a broad consensus about it in this House. This is also the opinion of leading legal practitioners, and is one of the reasons the CCBE – Council of the Bars and Law Societies of the European Community – is planning to hold a conference in Rome this autumn, which offers its belated support to the project.
It is therefore vital to us that we obtain not only the bare bones of a frame of reference, applying exclusively to issues of consumer contract law, but a framework including, in principle, all aspects of civil law. That is a crucial point as regards later decisions on all the options for what becomes of this frame of reference. This will, of course, depend primarily on the quality of this frame of reference. We should like all options to be kept open until the Commission presents the final consultation document, however, and to be able to take a decision on it afterwards, along with others.
It is also important that we depart from the sectoral approach to civil legislation and seek a holistic approach. After all, the many inconsistencies currently existing in EU civil law can be attributed to the failure to follow this holistic approach, to see things as a whole; instead always considering only individual problems.
Another prerequisite for a frame of reference is that, in principle, the network continues to function and is still operated, as the Commission has done up to now. As rapporteur on this issue for the Committee on Legal Affairs, I can say that all the political groups agree in principle on this subject, and that an overwhelming majority of this House is in favour – something I have seldom experienced elsewhere. Mrs Wallis of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, who cannot be here this evening, has explicitly asked me to reaffirm this on her behalf, too.
As we know, the three Commissioners dealing with this issue – Commissioners Kyprianou, Frattini and McCreevy – are currently considering, or have recently been considering, how the work should be taken forward. The reason we have deliberately put this oral question – together with the corresponding resolution, which you may have been able to read already in draft form, and which will undoubtedly be adopted by a large majority in this House on Thursday – on today’s agenda is to emphasise clearly once more the strength of Parliament’s support for this project.
We want this House’s resolutions to serve as a guideline for the Commission, too, in further developing and dealing with this issue. There has always been very close cooperation and mutual support between the Commission and Parliament on this issue up to now.
We ask that it stays that way – in the interest of the development of the EU and in the interest of legislation in the EU, which must also be manageable and practicable for the man in the street. That is why this project must continue. We ask the Commission to maintain the strength of its support, and also to take the opportunity of its answer to this question to make that clear publicly here in plenary.
Markos Kyprianou, Member of the Commission. The Commission has said from the beginning that it welcomes the interest Parliament is taking in the common frame of reference– the CFR – and the support which has been expressed for this project.
The Commission is currently considering the possibility of including contract law issues other than consumer issues in the CFR on contract law. I should like to explain that even though we are now proceeding with the consumer aspect, that does not mean that we have reached any final conclusion on whether to include any other aspects of contract law. I am working very closely with my colleagues Mr Frattini and Mr McCreevy on this issue. These other contract law issues could be related to the other EU contract law acquis or general contract law topics which are directly relevant to the EU acquis. The truth is that the Commission has not yet taken a decision on this matter, but it will take a final decision soon.
We have taken due note of the European Parliament’s opinion on this issue, especially that expressed in the recent resolution. I have also had an opportunity to discuss the issue in the various committees. The Commission also intends to seek the Council’s position on the remainder of the work on the CFR.
The Commission intends to use the CFR as a ‘better lawmaking’ tool for achieving clarity when legislating. Exactly what legal form to choose in order to best achieve that aim is a key issue, which will need careful consideration. It will be easier to make a decision once there is more certainty over the content of the CFR. Then we can examine how best to ensure that the CFR is used as effectively as possible. We have to realise that CFR is work in progress and will take some years to complete.
While the Commission can take into account the CFR work when drawing up new legislative proposals relating to contract law issues, it would not be useful or necessary to delay future contract law related legislation until all discussions on the CFR have been finalised.
Meanwhile, the Commission has already indicated that it plans to use relevant CFR results in the review of the consumer contract law acquis. As clearly indicated in its communication of October 2004, the CFR as such is not primarily meant to be a legislative instrument applicable directly to legal transactions, but a toolbox to facilitate better lawmaking for legislators.
The Commission fully understands that Parliament wants to be kept informed of and involved in the ongoing work on the CFR and would therefore welcome Parliament’s involvement in the CFR process, in particular the creation of the Parliament working group. The Commission will continue to keep Parliament informed of developments in the most appropriate way, in particular through the Parliament working group.
I would like to conclude by thanking you for Parliament’s encouragement and support for our work on this important issue.
Jean-Paul Gauzès, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. – (FR) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, European contract law is certainly such as to favour regulation of the internal market. A legal construction of this kind must, however, be prepared through a transparent and democratic process. The advantages that economic agents are expected to gain in terms of legal certainty and a reduction in the cost of transactions very much depends on the clarity, predictability and stability of the rules.
European contract law must be based on the demands of the economic world and on an assessment of its needs. It must do away with those instances in the acquis communautaire where there is a lack of coherence when it comes, for example, to consumer rights regarding retraction periods or information provided to the consumer.
The draft texts being prepared are, it seems, ambiguous and too detailed and do not really fall in with these objectives. Rather than embark on the utopian road of preparing, at present, a European civil code – a legal 26th regime - would it not be more realistic to prepare model contracts or sector-specific rules?
That being the case, the responses to the issues raised by this oral question must permit greater familiarity with the content of the common reference code. Selection of the legal base for an instrument dedicated to contract law must proceed from a political choice regarding the objectives concerned, rather than precede such a choice. It is therefore vital that the Commission clarify the objectives of the work funded since 2003 by the European budget and place the European Parliament in a position to give an opinion on practical proposals.
It would be unthinkable to give companies the ability to apply European contract law, as devised by a working party, in place of directives and national rights without Parliament and the Council having approved its content on the basis of a very thorough legal and economic impact assessment.
Maria Berger, on behalf of the PSE Group. – (DE) Mr President, I am very pleased that the oral question has given us the opportunity today to find out about the provisional state of affairs, at least. I had been hoping that, despite the late hour, our debate would be rewarded with some more specific information from the Commission on its current thinking. It would appear the time is not yet ripe for this, but I hope it will be in the near future.
I think that both Parliament and the Council of Ministers, and also many others – I myself took part in a conference organised by the Austrian Presidency and the Commission, and was able to see the depth of the interest of practitioners, the academic community, the business community and consumer organisations in this – have very high and very conflicting expectations, and rely on the Commission’s providing us with rather more clarity as to what happens now.
As Mr Lehne has already mentioned, there is a very broad consensus here on the fundamental issues, particularly on the development of Community acquis in the field of consumer protection having now begun, and on attempts being made at some degree of harmonisation. I myself have been rapporteur many a time on issues of consumer protection and I know the kind of inconsistencies that have naturally developed in this field over time. I should like to say in this regard, however, that leaving too much of the work to the experts instead of to politicians means that things are sometimes called inconsistencies that are not inconsistencies, but instead are often what we would call political progress attributable to changes in views and to which camp is in the majority, including in this House.
There is no doubt – and this was also one of the main results of the Vienna Conference – that the business-to-business sector also needs to be tackled; it goes without saying that this cannot be overlooked.
I would say, however, that there are of course very grave doubts concerning everything beyond this very narrow field of contract law – there is talk of a European ‘Code civil’ in this connection – and these doubts must be examined rather than dodged. The first is undoubtedly the matter of powers and responsibilities, and another is certainly the question of public acceptance, the fact that, particularly in civil law, we have legal systems that are steeped in tradition, and we have case law developed over many years that a 26th – or in future we shall have to say 28th – system would lack. I ask myself what form civil law could take without a body of evolved case law to build on in this field, and how we could create precise regulations that were acceptable to all. I am afraid that we would end up with very general statements that would not be very helpful to us.
I hope that we are able to reach agreement on the resolution. It is paragraph 6, in particular, with which we take issue, and I hope that we are able to find a wording for this specific point, too, that clearly reveals the broad general consensus that exists on this issue in other respects.
Ryszard Czarnecki (NI). – (PL) Mr President, I agree that point six is very important, partly because there are six Members here at the moment. It is the first time that I have taken part in a debate that could be said to resemble the film ‘The Magnificent Seven’, the seventh hero being the President of the European Parliament. It seems to be a happy coincidence.
I agree with the previous speakers that holding this debate so late, just before midnight, is not a good idea. I remember Polish parliamentary debates that ended at three o’clock in the morning and I never imagined this to be possible in Strasbourg. However, it would appear that I lacked imagination.
We are awaiting the European Commission’s decision on the Common Frame of Reference. We hope that the Commissioners from Cyprus, Italy and Ireland will be able to state the Commission’s final position. The point of this legislation is to enable ordinary Polish, Czech, French, Danish and other citizens of the European Union to make use of this right. It is also a matter of agreeing on and standardising consumer rights and other legislation making up the acquis communautaire. It is a very important matter and, once again, I would like to express my regret that we are discussing it so late. However, I do think that the Commissioner’s words today reflect the importance the European Commission attaches to this problem.
Markos Kyprianou, Member of the Commission. Mr President, the fact that this is a late night debate does not mean that we do not place great importance on this issue. The lateness of the hour is of no relevance here.
We take note of, and indeed, we take into serious consideration Parliament’s position on this issue. I regret that we still cannot give a more definite position as to how we will proceed or be more specific, but we are now in the process of clarifying and determining what is to be done next and the Commission’s position on this.
As I said earlier, we have Parliament’s position. My two colleagues and I will hold a debate on a joint paper within the Commission over the next few weeks and then we will consult with the Council. So, to take an optimistic view, I expect we will have a clearer picture by the end of this year. We will not be wasting any time, because we will know how to proceed by the time we finish the first part, which is the consumer acquis, so there will be no gap there.
Once again, I can assure you that we will keep you informed of developments and discuss our future approach with you, once we have formulated it.
President. – I have received a motion for a resolution(1) pursuant to Rule 108(5) of the Rules of Procedure.