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Bonino Emma, Buonadonna Paola, the European - 24 marzo 1995
Emma Bonino and the battle for consumer rights.

RADICAL CHAMPION OF THE PEOPLE

by Paola Buonadonna

SUMMARY: Paola Buonadonna meets Emma Bonino, the commissioner who thinks consumer rights is Europe's major battleground. According to her, consumer policy (her third portfolio after fisheries and humanitarian aid) moes not be seen as the Cinderella of EU policy (The European, 24-30 March 1995).

The popular image of the European commissioner is one of a self-important and inaccessible public figure fighting power battles from secluded and rather large offices. This prejudice is shattered once you meet Emma Bonino.

The first thing that the 47year-old former hungerstriker for the Italian proabortion campaign does when we meet in her office is to change her ankle boots into a pair of loafers, which "are a lot more comfortable". You do not get much more informal than this.

If she is going through a rather frantic period - the fish "war" with Canada is far from over and she is just back from a harrowing trip to the refugee camps of Burundi and Rwanda - she does not show it.

But she does get annoyed at the suggestion that consumer policy, her third portfolio after fisheries and humanitarian aid, might be seen as the Cinderella of EU policy, for its lack of glamour or dramatic potential.

"You just have to look at the structure of that portfolio," she says, waving her hand emphatically with the first of many cigarettes. "The other two dossiers have a clearly defined structure and an adequate annual budget. We have Ecu8OO million [$1,036m] for fisheries and Ecu764 million for aid, which is still not enough because it does not allow us to go beyond emergency aid, to infrastructure and planning.

"Consumer policy has finally been enshrined in the Maastricht treaty, but in a very vague form. The annual budget is only Ecu20m, to be divided among 15 countries with 370 million consumers."

Bonino, fresh to the job and full of energy, wants to change all that. She knows it will be a tough ride, but she is not frightened of the inevitable opposition that her fierce determination will provoke.

She believes consumer policy might be the very ground on which the real battle for Europe will be fought and might be lost: getting those 370 million people to believe that they will be better off under the European Union.

With a meeting of EU consumer affairs ministers coming up on 30 March, she wants to start by reorganising the service as a separate directorate-general for the first time. If she succeeds, it would give consumer affairs appropriate staffing and funding for the first time.

"The director of the consumer services retired a year ago and has not been replaced," she says.

"The overall money allocated for consumer information amounts to a meagre Ecu4m - that's all we have to try to escape the ghetto. If it were up to me I would spend the entire budget on communication and information for a couple of years. We must create a culture of consumer rights."

Bonino's vision for the next three years will be outlined in the 1996 Consumer Action Plan to be unveiled in the autumn. The plan will see a shift of interest from products to public services, an area, until now, little affected by EU legislation and one which is witnessing an erosion of state power in favour of privatised semimonopolies.

"To me, public service means something which is used by the public, regardless of whether it is managed by the state," she says. "The experience of privatisation in some member states like water in the UK, has shown that liberalisation and market forces by themselves, without rules, risk creating a jungle."

Answering criticism from consumer lobbies, including the European consumer organisation Beuc - the Bureau Européen des Unions des Consommateurs - that not enough consumer legislation has been passed in the past few years, Bonino points out that not many people are even aware of the rights they already have.

"If people knew the 48 directives that are in existence and pressed for member states to apply them, there would already be an enormous stimulus to respect for consumer rights.

"We have legislation on product safety standards and against flight overbooking, but it does not have repercussions for the manufacturers or the agencies unless the citizens start complaining and denouncing abuses, making it counterproductive for them to ignore the legislation."

This, for Bonino, is the key. She knows she faces strong opposition to her plans to extend the Commission's role in the jealously guarded field of public services.

Governments - in particular, she suspects, the British - will be furious at any suggestion of "interference" in what they regard as their national prerogative, and representatives of industrial interests, including some of her fellow commissioners, will, she expects, make every effort to water down her proposals. To protect consumer rights in such a wide field, while avoiding lengthy civil cases or bureaucratic nightmares, Bonino proposes "automatic clauses" to be inserted in future legislation in these fields.

They would mean that if a service is interrupted through negligence, for instance, the citizen would have an automatic redress. "If a train is more than three hours late I might have the right to be reimbursed," she says.

"But if this claim means being stuck for another three hours, probably in the wrong queue, with dozens of fellow passengers, I'm not going to bother. The solution in this case could be a coupon to use as part payment for the next train journey."

A study which will be published next month will give her an idea of the current state of legislation on public services in member states, pointing out the situations that need to be addressed from the village post office threatened with closure for economic reasons, to the cost of making crossfrontier telephone calls, which is still substantially higher than domestic calls regardless of the actual distances involved.

Bonino is not foolish enough to believe she can change the world on her own. If Europeans can only be made aware of what rights they have, and be encouraged to demand them, governments and industry will have to respond, she believes.

A first step in this direction has been taken with the launch of an on-line consumer guide to European Union legislation and directives during the recent G7 meeting on the information society.

Six thousand people keyed in with their computers during that weekend alone, and Bonino's cabinet is now monitoring the number of users since then.

The guide will be available in all EU languages by the end of next month, and in a few months users will be able to gain access through the guide to a printed text of specific EU directives and even national legislation.

Bonino is also about to send a letter to education ministers of the 15 member states asking for the printed version to be distributed and studied in secondary schools.

"School is the one place where we can gather the kids and push our message through in a way that we could not do with parents," she says.

"High school students are already consumers. They travel and need to be taught their rights, just as they need to know about geography and history."

Bonino relishes the battle ahead, however much it may sound like tilting at windmills. She is not a woman to crave approval or seek appeasement, as her office walls testify. They are decorated with old posters of the Italian Radical Party, in which she came of age politically.

They show a variety of curious faces with prominent captions reading: "We are looking for Don Quixote", "Dreamers" and "Troublemakers".

Emma Bonino would not object to any of those terms being applied to her.

 
Argomenti correlati:
Buonadonna Paola
politica dei consumatori
diritti dei consumatori
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