Consumers’ concerns must be front and centre in European elections

Monique Goyens, the Director General of BEUC – the European Consumer Organisation – writes on some important priorities for Europe after the elections:

On 22-25 May, the full panoply of European politicians – from socialist to nationalist, green to conservative, liberal to independent and more – will ask Europeans for their vote.

There is a consensus that the complexion of the European Parliament will change significantly. The pursuit of the European Commission presidency is ongoing and keenly fought. But regardless of who takes the EU reins, they will have to oversee a large number of consumer laws of everyday relevance.

BEUC – the European Consumer Organisation – has written an Election Manifesto for those who will be in charge, flagging the foremost consumer interests in European policies.

These elections will be about (re)winning people’s attention and trust. If the EU wants to get closer to its citizens and lessen popular perceptions of it being distant, then it must consider consumers as integral to each of its initiatives.

Below are some inevitable, high-profile tasks for BEUC and policy-makers alike.

Trade goods and services, not rights across the Atlantic

Negotiating the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) will be a rocky road. Affecting almost every sector, from food and medical devices, to financial services, to personal data, it does retain the potential to open up European markets and bring benefits to consumers via increased market competition.

We are adamant that the process must occur transparently, with adequate access to documentation, while Europeans must be resolute in our reluctance to dilute regulatory standards where the European level is higher.

It is easy for the negotiating team to chorus that ‘European laws will not be weakened’. But if the suggested plan for ‘mutual recognition’ of US and EU legislation succeeds, it will indirectly lower standards in practice.

A specific cause of concern is the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) scheme, which puts a misplaced emphasis on private arbitration. Businesses would be able to take their aversion of national regulations to arbitration and seek financial compensation. This is imbalanced because it favours foreign investors over national companies and citizens.

The European Parliament has a major role to play in approving any TTIP treaty and it must not shy away from performing it. It should even be willing to veto TTIP if there is insufficient respect for EU standards and values.

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Revising our still uncompetitive telecoms market is a hugely important dossier.

We will hopefully see the back of roaming and set clear legal parameters for net neutrality. In 2014, more than 50% of Europeans still switch off mobile data when roaming. That’s a malnourished market. Operators need not be afraid – if the EU finally stamps out roaming charges it will be a win-win scenario as consumer usage will rise and prompt a flourishing market.

Retail financial services: what price for poor advice?

As Europe’s consumers and policy-makers strive to emerge from the grip of recession, eyes are turning to the means to prevent a repetition. One crucially important aspect of personal finance is safe, secure investment based on unbiased guidance from retailers.

However, for too many years, too many investment salespersons have operated on a commission selling basis. This can only skew their perspective, and consumers are pointed towards unsuitable products which have too often proven individually, and by extension collectively, ruinous.

Banning such inducements for advisory services should be at the forefront of Parliament’s thinking if it wants to help create financial fairness for consumers.

Personal data is there to be protected, not just purchased

Digital issues are the big ones of our days. Perhaps where European consumers look most to the EU to assert their rights is with the revision of the General Data Protection Regulation.

The Snowden scandals highlighted threats to our privacy laws, but the uncontrolled accumulation and trading of our most personal data is not just a law enforcement practice. Online companies collate, sell and retain our most personal information as standard, with most consumers entirely unaware.

The relevant data protection laws which address such practices are also currently at Council stage but are sure to be an ongoing and growing issue for the next Parliament.

We need robust rights such as clear definitions of personal data, which third parties information can be passed to, and a collective redress mechanism for breaches. The pendulum of power needs to swing back towards consumers, while service providers and retailers must stop considering people as mere data mines.

Privacy in Europe is a fundamental right not a passing trend. As life on the internet becomes increasingly global, the EU must be steadfast in retaining this right in its laws. If politicians attain this, they will also gain a huge tranche of trust from consumers.

The net must not close in

The internet has been the springboard for so much in our social, professional, recreational and commercial lives, with its success built on attributes of openness and accessibility. These characteristics have been under threat for some years now – from blocking of services, throttling of internet speeds and undue traffic management. Quite remarkably, some 24% of households in the EU have forms of internet content blocked.

In response, Europe must take the lead and set net neutrality safeguards in stone. This would help prevent such nefarious practices, halt a shift towards an inequitable ‘two-tier’ internet, and ensure consumers are getting the speeds they are paying for. The current Parliament pulled victory from the jaws of defeat with the Telecoms Single Market proposal, so incoming MEPs will have to work with the Council to achieve a valuable final package.

Practising what is preached

Irrespective of who will be making decisions in the renewed institutions, it is obvious that a series of huge tasks will face them over their five years. Europe’s rate of change within such timeframes is rapid and increasing.

Consumers will mark those currently contesting for votes as successes or failures on the basis of how well they heed their own advice of ‘Act. React. Impact’.