Day two in Brussels – and I am at the European Consumer Summit organised by the Commission. This afternoon, I listened to Didier Reynders, the new Commissioner for Justice and Consumers, explain the EU’s priorities for future consumer policy.

The speech will probably be released in due course, and I can update the below as needed, but here are some points that I jotted down while listening.

A new consumer agenda

By the end of this year, the Commission will publish a new consumer agenda for the first time since 2012. The focus would be not just on protecting consumers, but empowering them. This, he said, would include ensuring that the proposed Directive on consumer collective redress was passed quickly, so that consumers could better enforce their rights themselves; he was working hard to see its adoption by mid-2020. (You can find further information on how things stood at the end of last year here.) 

Overall, the Commission’s priorities in this space will be “human-centric” digitalisation and addressing climate change and the loss of biodiversity. 

Fairness and safety in the digital economy

On the digital economy, Commissioner Reynders said that we could expect:

  • A focus on online fairness. He noted that every consumer who goes into a physical shop will receive the same products and prices. But different consumers may be offered different prices and even service levels when transacting online. How, Commissioner Reynders asked, does that fit with EU rules that ban unfair commercial business-to-consumer practices? The Commission’s starting point, he said, was that consumers should enjoy at least the same level of protection when shopping online as offline.
  • Work on an update to the General Product Safety Directive to deal with emerging technologies and the increase of online shopping (see my post from yesterday on this subject). This would be discussed further in the new AI White Paper, due in February. That White Paper would also deal with liability for AI.
  • Better enforcement of consumer law online. He noted that the recent Directive on the modernisation and enforcement of consumer law (further information here) allowed the Commission to initiate enforcement action itself. He also pointed to the results of a recent EU-wide review, which had demonstrated that 2/3 of online stores did not properly inform consumers about their rights on online deliveries and returns.

He also mentioned that the Commission wanted to look at how to improve the effectiveness of product recalls; surveys showed that as many as 1/3 of consumers continued to use products which they knew had been recalled by the manufacturer. 

Sustainable consumption

As regards the green deal, the focus would, he said, be on empowering consumers who want to make more sustainable choices and to fight climate change. He said that since households are the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, change was necessary to meet the Commission’s political ambition of being the world's first climate neutral continent by 2050. The Commission would look at:

  • tougher rules on false environmental claims (greenwashing)
  • encouraging longer lifespans for consumer products
  • combatting planned obsolescence of products and encouraging their re-use (a subject on which the European Parliament published a resolution in 2017). 

For both AI and the green agenda, he said, the accuracy of information provided to consumers was key.

Consumer protection as a 'core European value'

On a number of occasions, Commissioner Reynders stressed that a high level of consumer protection is a “core European value”. Those who want to sell goods or services into Europe needed to understand that, he said. There may be a message here for the UK government in terms of regulatory alignment, as it seeks to negotiate a trade deal with the EU. 

On that subject, he said that it was “very regrettable” that the UK would leave the EU tomorrow, but that this would also mark the beginning of a new relationship and the EU would need to reflect on its future cooperation on consumer issues.