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Soldi R., Cavallini S. (2018) “Consumer protection”

Committente: Comitato Europeo delle Regioni 
Periodo: 2018
URL: Customer protection

On 11 April 2018, the European Commission (EC) put forward a number of proposals for modernising and effectively enforcing consumer protection rules as well as for guaranteeing an equal treatment of consumers in the European Single Market. The package of proposed measures, as described in the Communication on ‘A New Deal for Consumers’ (COM(2018) 183), comprises non-legislative actions and two proposals for Directives ((COM (2018) 184) and (COM (2018) 185)). Consumer protection is a horizontal area, cross-cutting very diverse sectors, impacting both consumers and businesses, and covered, at the EU level, by a high number of Directives. Furthermore, it is handled rather differently across Member States. If at the EU level consumer protection is an area of shared competence between the EU and the Member States, at the national level consumer protection is the exclusive competence of central authorities in some countries, and a shared competence between national and sub-national authorities in other countries. Models for the implementation of consumer protection policy and the enforcement of consumer protection law vary among these countries according to their institutional frameworks, legal systems, and socio-cultural traditions. First, this study looks into the EC proposal on ‘A New Deal for Consumers’, including through the position papers of representative European stakeholders active in the consumer protection domain (Part 1). Overall, the main changes put forward by the EC package relate to the three aspects of increasing consumer rights, improving the tools for the enforcement of consumer protection, and reducing the burden for businesses. Consumer rights are strengthened in the digital economy and this is considered a modernisation requirement for coping with market developments. In addition, consumers are given more rights in terms of contractual and non-contractual remedies if harmed by unfair commercial practices, and qualified entities/public authorities are given more tools to enforce consumer rights. Among these tools are the provision for collective redress and the strengthening of the sanctioning power of national enforcement authorities for mass harm situations affecting consumers across more countries. The EC proposal looks into other specific aspects such as the dual quality practice for (food) products, the aggressive commercial practices related to off-premises sales, and the reduction of burdens for businesses. Second, the study investigates how consumer protection is dealt with at the local and regional level (Part 2) and collects examples of practices (Part 3) implemented by European local and regional authorities (LRAs). The review of the consumer policy implementation models across the EU Member States shows that LRAs have competences or at least a sufficiently defined role in the area of consumer protection in 15 EU countries, namely: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and the UK. In the remaining EU countries, LRAs have limited or no competence in implementing consumer protection policy. On the basis of the findings, a tentative classification of EU Member States is proposed with respect to the level of decentralisation of consumer protection competence. As there is no similar comparative analysis or classification in literature, these results need to be considered exploratory, also because aspects such as the financing by LRAs of third parties (associations/organisations) being delegated or devolved some competences was relatively overlooked. An online call for good practices implemented by LRAs in the domain of consumer protection was launched on 18 July 2018 with the aim of collecting evidence on the positive role European local and regional authorities have in defending consumer rights. The consultation was made publicly available online at and remained open up to 21 August 2018. The call was promoted among some 500 contacts, including the European Consumer Centres and other representative stakeholders in the consumer protection domain at European, national, regional and local levels. Over the five weeks of the consultation, whose time frame fully overlapped the summer and holiday period, only 13 practices were submitted from stakeholders belonging to 10 EU countries (i.e. Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Greece, Italy, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and UK). Out of these, five were considered to be in line with the scope of the study and sufficiently detailed for presentation in this report. In order to complement the limited information gathered through the consultation, other initiatives implemented by LRAs were identified through desk research. Although most of the presented initiatives may be considered ‘effective’ according to their consolidated nature (e.g. institutions delivering consumer services for decades) or to an increasing satisfaction level of the consumers, factually only a few can be referred to as ‘good practices’. Still, all the practices presented contribute to filling the knowledge gap on what LRAs actually do in terms of implementation of consumer protection policy and/or enforcement of consumer protection law. Finally, on the basis of the information gathered and analysed throughout the study, an overview of instruments and tools implemented by LRAs to deal with consumer rights protection and consumer policy implementation is outlined in the conclusive part of the report (Part 4). Instruments include: 1) Legislative acts. Regional laws on consumer protection are enacted and enforced by the regional authorities of some EU countries (e.g. Italy and Spain). 2) Statutory support. This is given by LRAs to their departments, offices, boards, or institutes dealing with consumer protection issues in a variety of ways. 3) Institutional financial support. This may be given by LRAs to third party bodies and organisations which are in charge of consumer protection law enforcement and/or consumer policy implementation. This type of support gives stability to beneficiaries and a medium-term implementation horizon for the execution of their tasks. Among the tools used by LRAs to deal with consumer rights protection and consumer policy implementation are found: 1) physical offices, put at the disposal of citizens for the structured provision of services; 2) Ad-hoc requests for services to associations/organisations; 3) Project-based interventions; 4) Calls for projects; 5) Mechanisms for coordination, participation and implementation at the territorial level; and 6) Programmatic tools such as Action Plans. It may be concluded that in some countries the regional and local level is ‘the level’ where consumer protection support is actually delivered to citizens. The implications for the concerned LRAs, with respect to the changes proposed by the EC in the New Deal for Consumers, depend on the type of competence of each sub-national public authority. Presumably, one or more of the following may apply:        review of regional legislation in line with the transposition of the new Directives into national laws; identification by LRAs of qualified entities to bring collective actions or application by any LRA – if an independent entity – to become a qualified entity; alignment by LRAs to the harmonization efforts, across the EU, put forward by the EC in the proposals (e.g. in the field of fines); capacity by LRAs to understand/master new relevant legislation as well as new technologies’ functioning as a consequence of the expected increase in size of the digital market; provision of support by LRAs to businesses to adapt to the new requirements in their relationship with customers; provision by LRAs of information to consumers on changes introduced by the new legislation; handling by LRAs or their specialised agencies of any side-effects caused by the new legislation (e.g. in the food industry and market, as a consequence of the banning as a misleading practice of dual quality products). The upcoming New Deal for Consumers also brings about the opportunity for LRAs to strengthen their contribution in the domain of consumer protection, and in particular in the areas of citizens’ trust in public institutions, and of consumers’ knowledge of key rights. According to the information collected in the latest edition of the Consumer Conditions Scoreboard, both these aspects have been found to be on modest levels in several of the countries classified as ‘decentralised’ in this study. 

Report for the European Committee of the Regions, 26 novembre 2018.