I was sitting back in a train from Strasbourg to Brussels in early spring 1998. Looking at the landscape in a train often gives you the distance you need to analyse something happening in your life. I was a young lawyer who had just arrived in Brussels from my home country Austria and I was deeply impressed, happy and proud.

The European Parliament in Strasbourg had just voted to establish a consumer legal guarantee period of 2 years minimum across the EU. A big victory for consumers. A significant step in most Member States, a courageous legislative initiative, interfering with sacred national civil laws and of course strongly opposed by many stakeholders.

I felt proud working for BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, and proud of the European Union and its institutions – of what they can do for people. What a journey! – and I was a part of it.
Last week I was reminded of this feeling on the train.

Collective redress in Europe

Law enforcementOn 11 April, the European Commission proposed to introduce a collective redress instrument for Europe. Finally! Hard to believe – but they did it. After decades of consumer advocates calling for it, after it had been on the table of various European Commissions, but always withdrawn, after those who wanted to give people better access to justice were repeatedly stopped in their tracks.

But then the proposal was adopted last week by this Commission. And the Berlaymont’s 13th floor, hanging over this initiative like a sword of Damocles, did not stop it.

It seems in Europe we need scandals to understand our own values

I am happy not only for European consumers, for consumer organisations, for BEUC, for my colleagues, for all those who have been working for this so hard and so long….but also for the European Commission itself.

Because this is not only about finally tackling what has become so obvious with the VWs, the Ryanairs and Facebooks of this world:

  • that European consumers in most countries simply cannot defend their rights when it comes to mass harm situations
  • that they are left footing the bill of illegal business behaviour
  • that big corporations in Europe can walk over people and their rights but also over public institutions
  • that national public enforcement authorities often fail and did so shamefully in the VW fraud case, meaning they cannot be relied upon…

A political statement

This is also about the credibility of the European Commission. In his state of the Union speech in October 2017, President Juncker said he did not want European consumers to be misled by car manufacturers and that he did not want a European Union of inequality. He said he would address this. Well, I am relieved to say, promise kept, Mr President. It was the last chance indeed.

Despite the many – and not only superficial – shortcomings of the proposed procedure and despite the fact that its effectiveness will have to be tested first, and that too much will depend on how Member States implement the proposal, the decision to propose a collective redress procedure is an essential political statement in favour of an EU for people, for consumers and for justice.

Business should no longer play bad losers but see this as a win – win project for a fairer marketplace.
It is not without irony that on the very same day, when a measure for Europeans to defend themselves against illegal and fraudulent behaviour of companies like VW was adopted, VW’s CEO Mr Müller was ousted.

European consumers in most countries simply cannot defend their rights when it comes to mass harm situations

It seems in Europe we need scandals to understand our own values and to have the courage to stand up for them, and not to play down our belief in protection and fundamental rights which, allegedly, undermines our “competitiveness”. Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are the next big chance to give the appropriate response on how we want to lead our digital lives, based on free personal choice and protection, for example with the necessary changes to the pending review of the EU’s e-privacy directive.

Posted by Ursula Pachl