24th Sep 2023

Brussels mulls new laws to boost online shopping

With only 6 percent of EU citizens shopping online for products in other member states due to a lack of trust, the European Commission is to review and possibly fully harmonise consumer-related laws in a bid to boost sales.

The revision announced on Thursday (8 February) by consumer protection commissioner Meglena Kuneva will involve eight current EU laws dealing with issues such as product guarantees, return policy or package travel traded via the internet.

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"At the moment, consumers are not getting a fair deal online," said the commissioner, asking "can we afford the 27 mini-online markets in Europe, denying consumers a choice, opportunity and competitive prices."

The EU executive argues that the current rules dealing with online shopping are too out of date while the differing standards in member states - based on minimum harmonisation - lead to low confidence among consumers towards shopping across borders.

Of all the Europeans that had internet access at home between March 2005 and 2006, around 44 percent bought something online and only 12 percent bought something from a company in another EU country.

The commission's survey also found that 56 percent of respondents thought businesses abroad would be less likely to follow the consumer-related guarantees, especially in terms of dealing with possible complaints, returns and price reductions.

The key problems Europeans encounter when shopping online concern delivery (46% of complaints), defect goods or the wrong products (25%) or the web trader withdrawing more money than agreed (8%).

Under the revised rules, member states would no longer be allowed to set less strict standards to be applied by businesses, such as the length of the legal guarantee imposed on the seller or the so-called cooling-off period during which a consumer can return the purchased product.

The commission also suggested common EU rules could be introduced for dealing with the damage caused by companies not fulfilling the agreed conditions - an area currently tackled at EU level only for the package travel.

Finally, the foreseen legislation would also apply to digital products such as MP3 downloads which were not in place at the time when some older laws had been adopted.

Avoid harmonisation, please

The possible proposals were presented in a so-called green paper which allows for public consultation before any legislative act.

BEUC, the Brussels-based European Consumers' Organisation, has welcomed the inclusion of digital products under the initiative, but questioned the idea of maximum harmonisation that seems to be favoured by the commission.

"We doubt whether consumer protection can be best achieved by insisting on having the exact same rules everywhere," said Caroline Hayat from BEUC, adding "We could end up with a typical EU compromise under which some countries could no longer apply their higher standards as they do without such EU law."

UK conservative MEP Malcolm Harbour made a similar point.

"Any new EU legislation must be based on minimum harmonisation and the principle of mutual recognition, rather than a heavy-handed approach, to ensure decisions about adequate level of consumer protection are taken as close to the consumer as possible," he said in a statement.

"Whilst guaranteeing consumer rights, we must also ensure that businesses can benefit from a more predictable regulatory environment to allow them to trade more easily across the EU," he added.


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