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Archivio Emma Bonino commissario UE
Bonino Emma - 7 luglio 1995
CONSUMER PROTECTION POLICY IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE

7-8 luglio 1995 (Budapest)

di Emma Bonino (discorso di apertura)

________

SOMMARIO. Discorso di grande importanza tenuto ai rappresentanti del mondo dei consumatori dei Paesi dell'Europa centrale e orientale e della Ue. Conferenza organizzata dal Ministero ungherese dell'Industria e Commercio e Soprintendenza per il Consumatore e dall'European Research Centre on Comsumer Policy of Louvain-la-Neuve.

Dalla conferenza dovrebbero uscire due messaggi: lo sviluppo di una politica di protezione del consumatore come priorità nei piani di "pre-accessione" all'Ue; la continuazione dell'assistenza fornita dalla Comunità e dagli Stati aderenti per facilitare il raggiungimento dell'obiettivo. La Conferenza, infine, dovrebbe essere una opportunità per raggiungere un accordo circa le priorità del programma Phare per i consumatori. Questi progetti rivestono una considerevole consistenza politica, in Stati che non hanno avuto fino ad oggi un vero mercato. Bonino fa un breve resoconto dei passi fin qui intrapresi per porre in questi Paesi le basi di una politica dei consumatori.

Gli strumenti fondamentali per una tale strategia sono la strutturazione delle relazioni con le Istituzioni dell'Unione, e gli Accordi europei. Il suo obiettivo sarà di fornire un programma di marcia per i Paesi associati.

Infine: la protezione del consumatore è un elemento chiave per una politica industriale e commerciale che voglia assicurare libertà di movimento per i beni e i servizi come anche la fiducia nell'apertura di nuovi mercati.

Ministers,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to be here in Budapest, to have the opportunity to address so many representatives of the consumer world, both from Central and Eastern European countries and from the European Union.

I would like to begin by expressing my thanks to the Hungarian Ministry of Industry and Trade and Consumer Superintendence, and the European Research Centre on Consumer Policy of Louvain-la-Neuve, for their work in organising this important conference. I would also like to thank the President and Vice-President of the Hungarian Parliament for allowing the conference to take place in this splendid building.

I would like to welcome Ministers responsible for consumer policy in their own countries or their representatives; senior civil servants; members of consumer organisations, delegations and university academics specialised in consumer policy.

It is, I think, appropriate that we should be holding this important event in the seat of Hungarian democracy. The presence of so many distinguished representatives attests to the importance attached to developing, across Europe, policies which will contribute to a high level of consumer protection. From today's conference should stem two messages :

- the implementation of a consumer protection policy in the associated countries should be considered as one of the priorities in the pre-accession plan ;

- the assistance provided by the Community and the Member States to facilitate the implementation of this objective should be continued;

This conference is a symbol that the Commission does not wish the work carried out through Community Programmes such as under the Phare programme to take place behind closed doors. I am personally committed to ensuring that work under the Consumer Institutions and Consumer Policy Programme will be done in a transparent manner.

Besides, this conference could be an important opportunity to agree upon the priorities of the Phare consumer programme. I will be interested to hear your views concerning these priorities and your suggestions for action. You will have an opportunity to express them during the course of the conference - especially during the round table discussion this afternoon and the two working groups tomorrow, where you will meet our experts.

Today's conference gives me a chance to express my own personal views on the role of consumer protection in the pre-accession strategy and of EU assistance in the area of consumer affairs and, in particular, the role which will be played by the Commission services in supporting consumer protection policies outside of the European Union.

It is indeed necessary to underline the fact that this is the first meeting at the political level in an area, which in the beginning did not seem a priority but quickly asserted itself as an essential step in the setting up of a market economy in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Whilst we at the Commission insisted, when the Phare Programme was born, on the need for a consumer policy to go with the setting up of a market economy, it would have not become such an integral part of the assistance programmes unless the countries concerned themselves voiced the necessity.

This became a reality in 1993, via requests coming from several states and so the Commission decided to release the means, certainly modest but sufficient enough, to start up a two-fold experiment : on one hand, assist governments to formulate and adopt the appropriate legislation for the protection and defense of consumer rights and on the other, help to set up independent consumer organisations capable of assisting consumers to fulfill their market role in all safety, equipped with a maximum of knowledge and methods of redress. All this is even more difficult since there is no previous tradition in this area.

It is no secret, Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen, that this task was and still is a considerable challenge, especially in those countries where the State monopoly controlled all aspects of the economy, be it the supply of products and services or the demand-side of the market.

As a result of this, in 1994, within the framework of the Phare programme for technical assistance, the Commission agreed to finance a first programme in the field of consumer protection - the so called Consumer Institutions and Consumer Policy Programme.

The work carried out as part of the programme in 1994, listed those areas where progress has already been made. Six countries have now adopted framework legislation in the form of a Consumer Protection Act and drafts are under discussion in all other countries. These developments are to be welcomed.

During 1994, legislative assistance was given on particular topics, including product labelling, misleading advertising, product safety and product liability, as well as on comprehensive consumer protection acts and institutional arrangements. Some of the results of the programme of assistance are already there to be observed: the impressive list of publications, including the compendiums of EU and Central and Eastern European countries legislative texts; the conferences in Gdansk, London, Riga and Sofia: participation in the European law programme of summer courses organised by the European Research Centre, to name just a few.

However, the results of the 1994 programme, also highlighted serious legislative lacunae and serious problems of enforcement in most countries.

I believe that the results of the CICPP demonstrated to all the participants, including the European Commission, that there was still scope for a great deal of assistance if the Central European countries were to reach comparable levels of consumer protection to those which exist within the European Union.

Also, the consumer protection programme had provoked enormous interest and great expectations in your countries.

The Commission has therefore extended, for a further two years, for the period 1995, 1996, the Consumer Institutions and Consumer Policy Programme.

The beneficiaries of the programme remain government and judicial institutions, nongovernmental organisations and academics responsible for consumer protection in the 11 Phare countries. The management of the programme has been entrusted to the European Research Centre on Consumer Policy.

The programme of technical assistance does not discriminate between participants or countries. Thus all eleven Central and Eastern European countries - Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, - are equal beneficiaries of what is, after all, a regional programme.

And consumer institutions, whether government institutions or non-governmental organisations are equal beneficiaries of advice, technical assistance and training.

I mentioned a few moments ago the new framework of the Europe agreements and the pre-accession strategy which concern the large majority of these countries, if not, ultimately at least, all of them.

At the Copenhagen Summit the European Council stressed the importance of the approximation of legislation to prepare for membership, also pointing out that consumer protection was one of the priority areas.

At the Essen Summit meeting, in December 1994, the leaders of the European Union determined this comprehensive pre-accession strategy which should be pursued with regard to the Central European countries.

The main instruments of this strategy are structured relations with the Institutions of the Union, and the Europe agreements. The goal of the strategy is to provide a route plan for the associated countries.

Each country has the challenge of meeting an ambitious series of objectives.

The European Union Heads of State and Government in Cannes two weeks ego, welcomed the White Paper drawn up by the Commission on "the approximation of Internal Market legislation by Central and Eastern European countries". This a clear signal that the European Union is committed to working towards the integration of the Central European countries.

The White Paper is conceived, on the part of the European Union, as providing guidance on a comprehensive set of rules for associated countries to harmonise legislation with the laws of the European Union. Far from being a mandatory list of obligations, the White Paper contains a guide an internal market matters for countries aiming to join the Union.

The developments which are required within these countries, touch all segments of society. Today is the first occasion since the adoption of the White Paper that representatives of all associated Central and Eastern European countries can discuss together the implications of the White Paper in the area of consumer affairs.

A more detailed study of this new political approach will be given by Mr DUBOIS, principal adviser in DG IA, but I would however like to emphasize that, as in the case of the Single European market, we obtained a consumer policy dimension in all the chapters of this document where in one way or another, the bringing together of legislation, control and management measures of the market necessitated the taking into account of consumer interests. The result that has been secured is satisfactory, as, since we already know from experience inside the Union, a market can only function if it is built on the confidence of citizen-consumers.

Consumer protection is in fact a key element for an industrial and trade policy aiming to develop competiveness and quality production. It is a lever to ensure freedom of movement of goods and services as well as confidence in the opening up of wider markets. This confidence cannot be decreed but we must be sure to create all conditions necessary for consumers to be aware of it. For, what use would a market be if all it did was to increase the profits of industrialists, retailers and bankers, or if this opening allowed dangerous products to more freely or banks to swindle and dodgy insurance policies to be issued leaving the victims with no protection and no way of obtaining legal redress.

I would like to emphasise that the cooperation of everyone is all the more essential as one of the main characteristics of consumer legislation is that it must be based on a wide consensus between authorities, producers, retailers and consumers. Economic operators will not accept rules binding them that they do not understand, or do not see the need or use for and so will only retain the obligatory aspect, even more so taking into account the historical background in this area.

That is why I believe the principal element is not to cut corners but, on the contrary, to be careful to proceed in close coordination with national authorities and taking into account the real development of each market in question.

Inside the European Union, the starting situation, whether it be at the legislative level or at the level of the development of consumer organisations, is completely different from one Member State to another, especially between the North and the South. Yet, it is our duty, especially in the Internal Market, to make sure that all citizen-consumers have the same possibilities to participate in the market and protect their health, safety and economic rights and solve legal disputes, etc.

Thus, the road is long and it is our aim, in starting another programme of legal assistance at the start of 1995, to progress not only more rapidly, based on the positive results of the first year, but also in a more appropriate way taking into account each particular situation.

The main objective of this meeting in Budapest is to face up to all these situations and to carry out a first evaluation of the results together so as to possibly correct certain options, while there is still the time before the programme ends in 1996.

*****

When considering the extensive problems which the countries of Central Europe have to tackle to adapt their economies, it is easy to think that in the European Union all problems of consumer protection have been solved. This, of course, is far from the truth. Many of the problems which need to be addressed within your countries still exist within theEuropean Union.

For, I would like to particularly stress this point. Experience within the European Union shows us that the correct implementation of legislation is just as, if not more important, than the legislation itself. This key element is also clearly stated in the White Paper.

So, in the future, our programme must develop in several directions and I suggest that we meet up again this time next year to assess the progress that has been made and to carefully prepare the follow up to this programme.

I am indeed convinced that we must go far beyond legislation and tackle totally different areas such as consumer information and education and improve the training of public administrators, members of the legal profession, magistrates and of course representatives of consumer organisations so that they themselves understand the laws they are called on to apply.

On the consumer side, we must also foresee information campaigns because in this area as well, the work to be done is enormous. To take just one example: associated countries have an obligation to introduce competition rules. This is the fundamental basis for a market economy. However, one must not forget to inform consumers and help them understand what true competition means in concrete terms for them. That is the possibility to compare and choose between products and services of varying price and quality. Such an approach takes time, as we have noticed in same countries of the Union which have come out of a long period of controlled and set prices where the consumer could only buy the same product at the same price in whatever shop. Thus, it is a whole new culture of consumerism that needs to be learnt and it will be the role of consumer organisations to teach it.

However, in this area as well, one must be careful not to cut corners. In no circumstances can you artificially create organisations which should originate from spontaneous citizen movements.

The artificial creation of such organisations or the launch of magazines aimed at an elite are certainly not the way to proceed. The Commission does not have the slightest intention of subsidising coordination structures, but would rather support national initiatives by giving them the assistance they need. This will take place, as is already the case, not in a systematic way but according to the situation in each country. The initiatives already taken by certain organisations of some countries of the Union, and by this I have in mind German and Dutch organisations, of inviting heads of the Central European countries organisations to come on study trips to their organisations is a good method, because the primary need of these new movements is to have experienced managers.

On the other hand, these organisations must also be helped to have the necessary material support at hand to be able to assist and inform consumers and later on, help them solve disputes, etc.

I believe that here as well, we should move forward step by step. The first step would certainly be to inform consumers as fully as possible on the way the free market operates, but also its dangers, including the problems posed by products and services, especialy in financial ones. This is without doubt a large task that the present programme must deal with but which must be further developed in the future.

Indeed, all the market players must be legitimately consulted and represented in the functioning of the market. This should not be left in the hands of just the government and producers as the final beneficiary of any economic development, let us not forget, is the well-being of the consumer and the respect for his health, safety and economic rights.

Ministers, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me conclude my intervention by thanking you again for your presence at this first High Level meeting for consumer policy in the countries you represent here. I wish you all the success for Europe's consumers. I hope that next year we will be able to meet again to review the progress which, I am sure, will have been made on the different aspects of the existing programme and that we will draw elements together for a new programme for the benefit of all citizen-consumers of our countries.

 
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