The digital age provides opportunities for consumers offering wider choice, more information, and easier access to goods and services. At the same time, consumers however are facing challenges posed by sharing economy, information reliability online, unsafe products and lack of effective redress. This limits consumer trust and confidence in the EU Single Market. The conference was devoted to the exchange of views on how to deal with these challenges, work together more efficiently in order to better protect consumer rights and encourage them to engage in market transactions.
Latvian Minister for Economic Affairs Ms Dana Reizniece-Ozola in her opening speech revealed that she has a vision of a well-functioning, completed Single Market that best serves the consumers’ interests, and they are at the very centre of EU policies enjoy the same rights in all EU Member States and beyond. “I firmly believe that we can reach this goal – but with three pre-conditions: smart policy, full enforcement and enhanced cooperation,” she pointed out.
Ms Věra Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality emphasised that consumers generate almost 60% of EU GDP, but they would generate much more if they could trust to shop online from other EU countries. “This is a big opportunity lost for the EU: we need to find ways of empowering the 85% of European consumers who still prefer shopping only at home, to look beyond their domestic markets. We must also provide a favourable environment for businesses, especially our SMEs, to venture into the EU market of 500 million consumers," she said.
In addition, Member of the European Parliament Ms Inese Vaidere reminded the participants that consumers are still facing problems like geo-blocking and roaming expenses that limit shopping or using services online. She pointed out that these problems are the current priorities of legislators to ensure wider choice, better quality, lower prices, and easier access to goods and services across borders in a bigger and more competitive market.
During the conference, participants from all over the European Union and beyond, including EU institutions (the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the European Economic and Social Committee), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), stakeholders and representatives from European and national consumer organisations evaluated the progress of consumer policy and focused discussions on the future developments of the EU Consumer Policy.
The participants discussed such topics as the priority setting in consumer policy, and challenges that consumers face in the dynamic digital environment. During the parallel break-out sessions, they also focused on challenges in the enforcement of the product safety rules, problematic consumer markets and the boosting of consumer confidence and empowerment.
The participants of the conference agreed that the future consumer policy should take into account the present challenges that consumers face in cross-border transactions and foster consumer confidence. It should aim at reducing market fragmentation, take into account the changing consumer behavioural trends and new business models. Not only the benefits to the competitiveness of EU business should be evaluated while drawing up new policies and legislation in the spirit of better regulation, but also the need for protecting and informing consumers.
In the field of product safety, participants recognised the need for additional consumer information and education since latest trends show that consumers are purchasing cheaper products online, most of which are also in low quality. A large amount of work still needs to be done to ensure that the EU market supervisory authorities have all the necessary powers and tools to tackle product safety online with more efficiency. New intelligence and new working methods are required in order to deal with these challenges.
The consumer protection authorities also need to find new ways of dealing with new players on the market – intermediaries like social media and platforms. While providing consumers with new opportunities in purchasing, the responsibility of these new players is limited or not clear enough which creates new threats to consumers and new challenges for authorities. The powers and operational tools of the supervisory authorities, need to be revised in relation to online market players, particularly in the monitoring of third countries, for example using test purchases, obtaining refund or even taking down websites if necessary to protect economic interests of consumers.
Aging population and consumer vulnerability also need to be taken into account in the drawing up of the new consumer policy. With digitalisation of daily life, consumers tend to misunderstand what is a cross-border transaction, get lost in the large amount of information or are unable to evaluate it properly, or they become the victims of fraud. To strengthen consumer confidence, the new consumer policy needs to take into account the consumer behaviour and think of new ways to protect vulnerable consumers.
The participants of the conference also agreed that new ways of cooperation are necessary to deal with the new globalised and digitalised market. Cooperation should become deeper and wider, involving both the EU and national legislators, consumer protection authorities, and stakeholders from business and consumer side, balancing the new opportunities of the digital era with proper protection.
The outcome of this conference will serve as a good basis for the next discussions on future consumer protection during the European Consumer Summit organised by the European Commission in early June.