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Procedure : 2005/0042B(COD)
Document stages in plenary
Document selected : A6-0032/2006

Texts tabled :

A6-0032/2006

Debates :

PV 16/03/2006 - 6
PV 16/03/2006 - 15
CRE 16/03/2006 - 6
CRE 16/03/2006 - 15

Votes :

PV 23/03/2006 - 11.6
CRE 23/03/2006 - 11.6
Explanations of votes

Texts adopted :

P6_TA(2006)0107

Debates
Thursday, 16 March 2006 - Strasbourg OJ edition

15. Community action programme in the field of consumer protection (2007-2013) (continuation of the debate)
PV
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  President. The next item is the continuation of the debate on the report by Mrs Thyssen on the Community action programme in the field of health and consumer protection (2007-2013) – consumer aspects.

 
  
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  Béatrice Patrie, on behalf of the PSE Group. (FR) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, first of all I should like to thank Mrs Thyssen for her report and for her cooperative spirit.

Although it has been adopted unanimously within the parliamentary committee responsible, the Socialist Group in the European Parliament has asked for a debate on this report. In fact, even if the groups as a whole agree in good faith to afford the highest political priority to consumer protection, I can see that there are still differences of opinion about the right way to go about it. Also, while the feasibility of this programme is on hold pending the outcome of the negotiations on the financial perspective, I should like to go over a few basic points from the Socialist Group.

First of all, I should like to remind you of our support for separating the two action plans, for public health and for consumer protection. Next, in relation to the horizontal objectives of the plan, the Socialist Group considers that the means of redress, both for individuals and for groups, available in some Member States, constitute real progress for consumers. That is the reason for our Amendment 55.

Next, with regard to the specific actions of the programme, I should like to highlight the importance of the following: the development of tools to enable scientific assessment of the effects on consumers of exposure to chemicals released from products; the compilation of an inventory, what one might call a vade-mecum, of the existing legislation, regulations and practices in the Member States in relation to consumer protection and including an assessment of the implementation of Community legislation at national level; and exchanges between national and local consumer associations in order to assist public authorities to make legislation at a European level in matters concerning the protection of users in the field of services of general economic interest, and that is the meaning of our Amendment 58.

Thirdly, regarding the legislative measures to accompany this programme, I wish to address myself in particular to Mr Kyprianou concerning the political and legislative measures that he has promised to present to us in the autumn, specifically to accompany this programme. The terms of the debate are familiar. How best to intervene at European level? Is it better to favour European law or to favour self-regulation on the part of the economic operators? How are we to link emerging European law in relation to consumer protection with national laws that are older and that often afford greater protection for the citizens in some Member States?

In my view, while our fellow citizens’ mobility is increasing, I consider that the role of European public authorities is to ensure the best possible protection for consumers. I do not object at all to initiatives concerning self-regulation, but they must be the responsibility of the economic agents themselves and their aim must be to improve on the minimum standards fixed by the legislator.

Finally, we should be extremely careful in respect of two dossiers that relate to today’s debate. The first concerns discussions about the common framework of reference in relation to European contract law and the second concerns the extension of standardisation procedures in the services sector, including services that are given collective preferences, such as social housing.

These are the comments that I wished to make on behalf of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament.

 
  
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  Cecilia Malmström, on behalf of the ALDE Group. (SV) Mr President, because we had so much to do this morning, this debate has been rather delayed, and it is unfortunate that the rapporteur and many others who have worked on this issue cannot be in the Chamber. However, that is the way it is. I was suddenly given a very great deal of speaking time by my group and declined to use the last five minutes, even though I was offered the chance to sing a song. That is not something I shall do, however.

The internal market has created millions of jobs, as well as increased prosperity. It has torn down borders and opened doors. We can do whatever we want: travel, study, work and set up house. Consumers have been given access to a host of new products. We must therefore go further and also create an internal market for consumers. That means common regulations and a high level of consumer protection throughout the EU. As border trade increases, so too does trade at an individual level, so people need to know what kind of goods they are buying, what to do if there is something wrong with them, how to complain and what kind of regulations exist. How are they to know that a particular product really does what it purports to do? What is available in terms of service, warranties and the resolution of disputes?

If we are to win back people’s confidence, there must be guarantees regarding these matters, for they are day-to-day issues concerning the conditions encountered by consumers every day. These are the matters we need to engage with at EU level. It is therefore really excellent that the Commission has put forward this proposal for a long-term multiannual programme in the field of consumer protection.

The Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe does not, however, agree with the Commission about the need to combine consumer protection and public health. We share the rapporteur’s view that they should be kept separate. Even though there are naturally points of contact, they are two distinct policy areas requiring different approaches, and the two should be kept separate. We do not want to see any special authority or agency in this connection, either.

Other important elements we are delighted to see included in the proposal include the views that consumer policy needs to be integrated into all policy, that it is important to cooperate with the various consumer organisations in our Member States and that additional support and attention might be given to those states that have not yet managed to make much progress in the field of consumer protection. I am delighted that we have been able to agree on these matters and that there is a broad consensus among the groups regarding them. I wish to than Mrs Thyssen – hopefully, she will read the Minutes – for the far-sightedness and willingness to cooperate that she has shown. We are ambitious when it comes to consumer matters, whether what is at issue is cooperation, evaluation or the provision of information. There must, of course, be a proper budget, therefore.

I hope that, in the future too, there will be constructive cooperation when it comes to the consumer programmes that the Commission is to present this autumn. Perhaps we really should have proceeded the other way round and first dealt with the major policy guidelines and then this programme, but what is done is done. We back what has been proposed and shall support the report by a large majority – or, I in actual fact believe, unanimously -–when it is voted on during the next part-session.

 
  
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  Gerard Batten, on behalf of the IND/DEM Group. Mr President, the European Union wants to fund consumer organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, to the amount of EUR 1.2 billion, to bring them into line with existing and future legislation. Like so much that comes from this Parliament, it is not possible to object to the subject-matter itself. Who would object to better and more efficient consumer protection measures where they are required?

In Britain we already have high standards of consumer protection legislation and have had for many years. No doubt European countries should learn from each other and from non-European countries by adopting international best practice on a national basis, selecting that which is best suited for their particular needs.

But as we would expect, this report speaks of uniformity, integration and harmonisation. The objective of this report is not the adoption of legislation – that is good in itself – but, like everything else that comes from this Parliament, it serves the purpose and process of extending power and dominion to the European Union. It will add to the acquis communautaire, the body of law that, once accrued to the European Union, is never returned to nation states.

There are also some disturbing overtones contained in suggestions that patterns of consumption, linked to sectors of the population, should be adopted. Such intelligence-gathering in terms of consumer consumption could compromise the privacy of the citizen. That is already being done in Britain by private retail companies using such devices as loyalty cards. However, the consumer has some choice about whether to participate, depending on where and how they choose to shop.

That kind of information-gathering on the citizen is not something that should be undertaken by the state; certainly not in the form as represented by the European Union.

 
  
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  Zdzisław Zbigniew Podkański, on behalf of the UEN Group.(PL) Mr President, the Community action programme in the field of healthcare and consumer protection for 2007-2013 defines the way in which the EU intends to improve healthcare and boost consumer confidence by applying the provisions of the Treaty.

The joint strategy in the field of consumer protection in the European Union is a collection of actions such as better understanding of consumers and markets, better consumer protection regulations, improved means of implementing the law, monitoring and settling claims, and better provision of information to and education of consumers.

The problem lies elsewhere, however. Food safety is becoming worse in Europe. Genetically modified foods are multiplying on the EU market. These foods are unwanted and are potentially damaging to human health and to the environment. Society feels threatened by GMOs. This has been expressed in numerous protests, in a growing anti-GMO public movement and in local authority regulations. Another threat to health and consumers, aside from the spread of genetically modified food, is the increasing concentration of agricultural production which squeezes out family farms producing healthy food. Chemicals in farming and the pollution of the soil, the water, the air and of many food products are not beneficial to humans. The time has come for human health and wellbeing to become the highest value of all, so that humanity may benefit.

 
  
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  Andreas Mölzer (NI). – (DE) Mr President, contrary to the opinion that prevails in many economic circles, consumer protection has nothing to do with protectionism. Quite the opposite: industry cannot flourish without the confidence of consumers, and customers are more capable of mature judgment than the multinationals and the EU generally give them credit for.

The Commission’s attitude in this field is strangely contradictory. On the one hand, with the Green Paper on healthy diet and physical activity, for example, it initiates coordinated policy, while on the other it undermines consumer protection with the Services Directive. Among other things, for example, the latter makes the nuisance of telephone advertising, which has been prohibited until now, suddenly legal, provided it is not done from domestic call centres. Then again, it worries about the level of its citizens’ debts and wants to deter even slight overdrafts at great bureaucratic expense. But those overdrafts are the consequence of our consumer society and a life on credit, with the budgetary policies of many EU Member States setting the example.

As the latest scandal surrounding bad meat in Germany once again proves, there are not enough inspectors to deal with the black sheep in the food industry. In the field of electrical goods and toys, too, the number of dangerous products has almost doubled. Publishing the names of the firms concerned would be more effective than any fine. Perhaps then we would have real consumer protection.

 
  
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  Zita Pleštinská (PPE-DE). – (SK) Ladies and gentlemen, first of all I would like to thank Mrs Thyssen for her work on this report, which has not been particularly easy. I fully support the rapporteur’s justification as to why the action programme in the field of consumer protection cannot be integrated with the programme for public health protection. By separating these programmes, the two policies, both of which are very important to our citizens, will gain in significance. Despite the fact that the original European Union, and also the new Member States, are now paying more attention to consumer issues, we should not be complacent about the current situation.

Support for consumer protection chiefly involves the funding of consumer organisations, particularly in the new Member States, and current levels are inadequate, not to say worrying. For instance, in Slovakia, subsidies amount to less than a tenth of the comparable aid granted in neighbouring states. Scheduled payments tend to be delayed, and subsidies, already low, are very often cut back, jeopardising the survival and creativity of these organisations. I am convinced that a joint action programme would only worsen these negative consequences.

Consumers form the bedrock of a market economy. It is becoming increasingly more complicated to be a consumer, especially after EU enlargement. We, the 450 million citizens of Europe, are directly affected by issues ranging from the safety of the goods that we buy and our trust in retailers to on-line shopping and advertising. Since many of these issues traverse national borders, we need intensive and preventive awareness-raising campaigns that will equip us with the self-confidence to prevent us becoming the pawns of big corporations. The Commission must surely find these reasons sufficiently compelling for it to approve a separate and adequately funded action programme for consumer protection policy.

The Community action programme for consumer protection in the period 2007–2013 provides an important framework for achieving equilibrium in the internal market, meeting consumer needs and requirements, and creating a balanced and proper relationship between consumers and businesses. The independent European organisations that are educating the European consumers of tomorrow want substantial change and financial security. They expect the European Union to supply a clear vision and a set of rules, and to eliminate bureaucratic and administrative obstacles.

However, particular attention should be paid to aiding the new Member States and accession countries. The date set for the debate on this report is symbolic, as 15 March is World Consumer Rights Day. By approving this report we will send a message that the European Parliament considers it a priority to create in Europe a decent and just society for consumers.

 
  
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  Evelyne Gebhardt (PSE). – (DE) Mr President, Commissioner, like many or almost all of the Members who have spoken before me, I, too, would again like to stress that it is not sensible to combine consumer protection and public health in a joint action programme. We need two different action programmes, because a very large number of very different questions are discussed and dealt with here.

As regards consumer protection, I would like to say that it is very important – that is why I would also like to urge you to pay great attention, in Parliament’s motion, which I hope will be accepted as it stands, to the fact that we are especially supportive of consumer protection organisations in particular. We have found that there is still some catching up to be done in the new Member States in particular, and we want to ensure that consumers there get the highest possible common standard of consumer protection, just like we do; there is still room for improvement here, too, it is not as if we were always the best. This is a matter of great concern to us.

That is why we need to ensure that consumer protection organisations are well able to be effective on the public’s behalf. Citizens have repeatedly told us that consumer protection is what they want. We want a Europe where the citizens, the people, are at the centre, a Europe where their rights to protection are respected. For that reason, my Group is also particularly concerned that we should get harmonised consumer protection legislation in the field of services of general economic interest.

Where, if not in water, postal services, gas or electricity and other areas, is it important to have a minimum of harmonisation so that a high level of rights relating to access, safety, reliability, price, quality and choice is guaranteed and these forms of protection are as high as absolutely possible. These are the things that concern our citizens, what they need and what they want.

 
  
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  Adam Jerzy Bielan (UEN). (PL) Mr President, international cooperation in the field of consumer protection pursues the goal of protecting against risk and increasing the opportunities available to citizens to make their own choices. It results in better quality of life for EU citizens by increasing safety and confidence in products on the internal market. For this reason the Community networks that provide consumers with essential information and support in terms of legal aid, mediation and other forms of dispute resolution should be supported and developed. The Solvit system is of great importance in this respect, since it is a mechanism for serving consumers that already exists. It is also important to build confidence in products by taking action to step up the fight against counterfeit goods, which should be regarded as common theft of a brand or a trademark. Particular attention should be paid to providing consumers with better information about the dangers to health and safety that may arise as a result of using certain counterfeit products such as drugs or cosmetics.

Consumer protection policy must also be implemented through consumer organisations. Such organisations are active in the majority of Member States, but their budgets and scope for action are often limited, especially in the new Member States. There is an unquestionable need for additional funding for organisations of this kind. Consumer protection may cost money, but it is a cost we have to bear.

 
  
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  Edit Herczog (PSE). – (HU) Mr President, I agree with all the arguments brought by the rapporteur and the Conference of Chairmen to support the separation of health and consumer protection tasks, and I support the separation.

I would like to present a further argument. Consumer protection faces very specific challenges both in the new and old Member States, which are totally independent of health issues. These challenges should be treated with the highest degree of independence.

Consumer protection had initially involved goods, and in particular food and household items. However, this situation has changed radically over the past decade. On the one hand, together with market integration, consumer protection, too, must extend beyond goods to include services. On the other hand, consumer protection must adapt to the market restructuring caused by the rapid development and expansion of information technologies.

Nowadays it is possible, for instance, for a French consumer sitting in a Belgian home to ask for a consumer loan from a Dutch bank by sending an SMS text message, and then, with a few mouse clicks, to purchase a Swedish electronic product from a Lithuanian Internet store, to be delivered by a British service provider. Such situations are quite usual these days, and they only reflect the normal operation of our internal market.

And yet, within the current legal frameworks, it is not only difficult to guess which consumer protection regulation of which country is applicable at any given time, but even the competence of the various possible authorities is difficult to determine, especially for the consumer. For this reason, with the integration of the services market and the irreversible expansion of online purchases, the future European Consumer Protection Agency will also have, apart from the traditional task of consumer protection, other crucially important tasks in the areas of research, analysis and planning.

Like industry, our legal system and institutions also need innovation. The frameworks ensuring protection for the European consumer in the 21st century must be sufficiently flexible to adapt to the immeasurable variety of potential real-life situations. In order to accomplish this work, we need independent resources, excellent and versatile specialists, and I am convinced that it is in the joint interest of the 450 million European consumers that the Consumer Protection Agency becomes an independent pole of excellence. I ask for the support of the Commissioner to achieve this.

 
  
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  President. I beg your pardon, but allow me to make a suggestion to our fellow Members from the new Member States, who are accustomed to reading out their speeches in Parliament. Reading out the speech too quickly compromises its translation and makes it impossible to understand the speech itself. I therefore suggest that you omit a sentence, provided that the speech is read out at a manageable speed for the interpreters, or else that you submit your speech to the interpreters beforehand so that they might keep up with the speed of your delivery. Doing so will help us understand our parliamentary business.

 
  
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  Bogusław Sonik (PPE-DE).(PL) Mr President, I would like to protest against the accusation that ‘colleagues from the new Member States’ read too quickly. If a Member reads too quickly, he reads too quickly, regardless of whether he is from a new Member State or an old Member State.

 
  
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  Markos Kyprianou, Member of the Commission. Mr President, I shall briefly make a few comments on the issues raised by the Members. I would like to thank them for the very interesting debate we had, and now we have the advantage of having them split into two parts, but I still think the issues raised here today were very interesting.

I know I tend to repeat myself, but many of the issues raised will face financial challenges; so issues such as support for consumer organisations or increased support for consumer organisations, or even more active/strengthened initiatives in the new Member States will be affected by the final outcome of the budget discussions. Nevertheless, especially on the issue of the new Member States, I agree that there is a need for priority, not so much having a separate strategy – and this has already been described in the morning session – but rather giving priority and emphasis and focusing on the newest Member States, at least those where the consumer protection tradition is less apparent than in other Member States. These will be reflected, as you will see in the near future, in the consumer strategy which is being drawn up in a more detailed way, and you will see how the focus will be concentrated on the new Member States, especially in education, in the training of consumer organisations and in areas where we could strengthen consumer protection mentality.

On the issue of vulnerable groups, I agree that certain consumer groups need increased protection. Again, I am not sure if inclusion or specific provision in the programme is the best way to achieve this; nevertheless, in specific actions, in specific initiatives and legislation, we should take into account the particular needs of vulnerable groups, children for example. I refer you to the relatively recent legislation we have adopted jointly on unfair commercial practices, where we take into account vulnerable consumer groups.

There is a misunderstanding about the agency. I see that Mr Stubb is not here this afternoon, but the proposal for an agency is not in the sense of an agency that will be formulating policy or taking initiatives in the area of consumer protection; it will be an executive agency, it will be a management body which will do the accounting and all the practical aspects that do not involve policy. It will actually operate from the practical accounting management aspect, so it will free the resources we have in the Commission actually to promote and propose policies. We already have an executive agency for the health programme, and this is something that has been working very well because it makes better use of resources, and we propose something similar now for consumer protection. So, it is not a separate agency or institution in the sense that it was described today by the speaker of the group concerned.

I said a few things about splitting this morning. I understand Parliament’s position. Before we take our final decision, we will wait to see the outcome of the discussion on the financial perspectives, so at this point we do not agree: we still feel that there are benefits in having a joint programme whilst safeguarding the specific needs and financing provisions of the two areas. Nevertheless, we will revisit this issue once we have a specific picture in front of us regarding the budget.

Finally, I have taken the point on services on board. We are already funding programmes for consumers in relation to services as well. One point on the consumer protection area in general is that we should always bear in mind the benefits of offering consumer protection, not just for the consumers, not just for the protection of the citizen, but also the benefits that increased consumer confidence will have on the internal market, the economic growth that this will promote and, of course, the competitiveness of the European economy.

Once again, I would like to thank the rapporteur and the members of the committee for their strong support of this programme, and I am looking forward to working with them in the consumer protection area in the following period.

 
  
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  President. The debate is closed.

The vote will take place on 23 March 2006.

 
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