Consumer rights: the struggle continues

27 August 2017

Consumer rights: the struggle continues

For years the European Commission has attempted to harmonise consumer protection laws across the EU, so that if you buy something in another member state, you know precisely what your rights are. Consumer organisations have, however, been doubtful about this. No wonder when you see that the current proposals threaten, for example, to reduce the duration of guarantees. The solution is simple: a minimum level of protection could be laid down at EU level, while individual member states retain the right to give additional protection should they see fit. From the point of view of big corporations, however, this goes against the grain. What they want is a lower level of protection and the same level throughout the EU. Those who always want the most, however, often end up with nothing at all. Let’s hope that this is what happens in this case, too.

Say you buy a fridge. As things stand, in the Netherlands this will carry a guarantee which covers its expected lifespan, which, depending on its quality, will be between six and fifteen years. In the latest proposals, the guarantee period would be reduced to two years. Very profitable for the company selling the fridge, because they will be able, for a payment, to offer an additional warranty, or a so-called ‘service contract’, which often amounts to the same thing. If not, you’ll be paying over the odds for a fridge that won’t last very long. After two years the company selling the fridge will be free of any obligations, and it won’t be of any concern to them whether the thing works or not, even if the claim when you bought it was that it would last at least a decade.

The entire discussion is taking place because the Commission has proposed a law regulating the rights of consumers purchasing via the Internet. Because such purchases are increasingly made across borders, this is in itself understandable. But if retailers are keen to sell more abroad, then they must also learn to live with legislation being adopted which is based on the highest level of protection currently available in any member state. As far as warranties on products are concerned, the criterion of the expected life of the product is best for the consumer. Many firms don’t accept this and would rather see laws such as the ones from member states which limit guarantees to two years.

The discussion is growing even more in importance because in the European Parliament most political groups want to harmonise consumer rights for purchasers via the Internet and those who buy from a conventional shop, so decisions here will affect the whole of consumer law. Traditional shopping is of course much more attached to a particular geographical location, and it’s not very likely that you’ll buy a fridge while on holiday in Cyprus to be delivered when you get home. For the SP, however, what’s important is that in the Netherlands we retain the freedom to adopt and amend our own consumer law, should we wish to do so. Let the EU agree a warranty term of two years, but that should be a minimum, so that in the Netherlands we can hang on to our existing rights and keep guarantees just as they are now. In Brussels jargon, minimum rules, not maximum harmonisation. This will be a tough fight, but as a full member of the European Parliament Internal Market Committee I won’t be leaving our consumers out in the cold.

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