When we purchase new toys, clothes or electronics, we expect these to be safe. This is where ‘market surveillance’ comes into play: our authorities making sure products conform to our laws through controls and inspections. And as we are in a European Single Market, it goes without saying – but we’ll say it anyway – that our governments must be checking products across this very market.
As our products evolve with the times – becoming Internet connected, for example – European legislation must grow and adapt with it. And precisely this is happening now. The question: will it make us safer?
What is wrong with market surveillance now?
In a world where everything is digital-this and digital-that, the Internet of Things reigns supreme as the hottest policy topic of the late 2010s. Its buzz is well-deserved: our products are becoming more connected. And with new opportunities (unfortunately) come new risks.
For example, Norwegian consumer group Forbrukerrådet has highlighted how flawed connected dolls have ramifications for children’s’ privacy and safety. Both the UK’s Which? and Belgium’s Test-Aankoop/Test-Achats show how easily our homes can be hacked now they are becoming ‘smart’. Digital products clearly fly under the radar of EU countries’ supervision actions. The very definition of a ‘safe’ product does not even cover Internet of Things aspects. Consumer groups can of course help by testing products but cannot replace the responsibility of government authorities. Especially as the results of these tests are in some cases not followed up by authorities.
Beyond the lack of consideration to ‘new’ risks stemming from digitalisation, EU market surveillance activities – against the logic of a single market one might expect – are fragmented. As a result, while all products are theoretically checked, many simply slip through the safety net .
The fragmentation is manifold. EU countries have different staff capacities and do not carry out the same number of checks. In one country, a certain authority may be responsible to check a specific product type. But in another country this responsibility may lie elsewhere. Meanwhile, if a product is recalled from the market, this happens country-by-country – and not across the single market at once.
If you couple this to a sub-optimal communication between national authorities and their European colleagues, the result is clear: Consumers are not evenly protected across the single market. A market that is only as strong – or safe – as its weakest link.
The EU’s plan to help authorities better trace, and deal with, unsafe products
A pan-European system for market surveillance is therefore urgently needed. To tackle the present-day shortcomings, the European Commission published its proposal to reboost EU law – billed the ‘Goods Package’ – in late 2017. In September, the European Parliament’s internal market (IMCO) committee improved this proposal, asking to better control the safety of consumer products.
Differentiating between different types of products flies in the face of reason of a safe market for consumers. It is incomprehensible and unjustifiable why the safety of a bed for a doll is better controlled than the safety of a bed for a child.
The policy-makers urge EU Member States to properly supervise supply chains, including products sold online. To do so, every company selling products to consumers in the European Single Market must have a contact person present that can – and must, we would say – act if a product breaches EU safety laws.
EU-wide safety legislation must also be better enforced by countries. Part and parcel of this is to create a database to centralise information on accidents (or harm to health) that are suspected to have been caused by products. Finally, MEPs request that national strategies for market surveillance must tackle new threats to consumers. Such as those from the Internet of Things or Artificial Intelligence.
Consumer groups laud that institutions now echo our frequent calls, and waves of empirical evidence, to make our laws ready to deal with connected dolls and the likes. In itself something no-one would’ve needed to consider 10 years ago, when market surveillance laws were reformed last.
New and old product threats = Updated laws covering all products? Not quite.
A glaring omission from the EU’s plan is that the above update does not cover all consumer products. Under the proposed system only the supervision of certain types of products will be improved. For example that of toys, medical devices (contact lenses, blood pressure meters) and household appliances (refrigerators) . Others – furniture, textiles and child care products – are left out . Their supervision will not be strengthened. For consumer groups this makes little sense: these are both legal and practical gaps that can cause harm where this could be readily avoided.
Obviously not all is set and done. The proposal still has to be endorsed by Parliament’s plenary and accepted by EU Member States. This is why consumer groups are now banking on the latter to pick up the baton, face up to market realities and close the loopholes that put consumers at risk.
This is not only about following through the logic of the single market. Differentiating between different types of products flies in the face of reason of a safe market for consumers. It is incomprehensible and unjustifiable why the safety of a bed for a doll is better controlled than the safety of a bed for a child.
 For example: Consumer tests across Europe show how CE-marking gives the false impression that products are safe, though they may not be. See examples from Belgium (Dutch/French), Italy, Portugal and Spain. These organisations stress the need for better EU-wide market surveillance.
 The technical term for these products is ‘harmonised products’.
 ‘Non-harmonised products’.