By Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation
We are approaching the European Parliament elections. And times are intense. Media coverage is filled with debates about Brexit, the rise of populism and Euroscepticism. It is precisely about that I worry. There seems to be very little talk about what the EU has done, does and should be doing for people. Yet this is what any political debate ought to tackle.
Consumers are the building blocks of the EU’s core: the single market. We shop, travel and invest in it, making it flourish. Some of us do this between European countries – because we travel or happen to live on one side of the border and work on the other. The EU adopts laws that make this market tick. These laws are also a safety net: in the supermarket, on the train, online and beyond.
Europe is a very safe place in the world to be a consumer thanks to these laws. For example, the EU ensures food sold to consumers is safe by requiring strict hygiene standards from farm to fork. A pan-EU rapid alert system allows our national institutions to be informed by other EU countries when a dangerous product is found on the market. And the EU is limiting the overuse of antibiotics in our food chain to mitigate antimicrobial resistance.
It is not only about safety, of course. Ecodesign rules save us on average €454 a year by making households appliances, such as washing machines, more energy-efficient. And strict limit values for the CO2 emissions of cars make these consume less fuel, benefitting both the environment and our wallets. This comes on top of many national environmental laws that have their origin at the EU level and result in cleaner drinking water, less chemicals in our products and more recycling.
Most of our consumer laws are in fact EU laws. Never-ending ‘more Europe… less Europe’ discussions fail to capture this. The EU should be measured not on a philosophical basis, but on its merit – that is – its benefit to our daily lives. Consumer groups of course do not put it on a pedestal beyond criticism. We regularly disagree with EU decisions. Our message is rather: promote the benefits and tackle the daily headaches consumers face, or might face in the future.
It is not difficult to find examples. Think about printers or smartphones that go dead way too early. Or the complex food labels, hidden on the back of products, that we must decipher when shopping. We also increasingly see high prices and shortages of medicines preventing people in the EU from accessing the treatments they need. And our tests regularly detect harmful chemicals in toys, hygiene products and more. Then there is the growing use of self-learning algorithms. This has the potential to bring us fascinating new products and services, but also not-so-fascinating new forms of discrimination, such as withholding insurance offers from people who are ill (or believed to be ill by a robot).
As we live in a single market, these headaches can only be tackled Europe-wide at once. For companies it would be beneficial in creating a ‘level playing field’ across this market. Consumers must then be able to reap the benefits, while safety nets are improved to tackle existing and new challenges.
Members of European Parliament can help the EU build a better relationship with Europeans if they make it their priority to act on these challenges. If we instead keep holding a never-ending debate about ‘more Europe’ or ‘less Europe’ without delving into what it really does, we risk undermining its benefit for our daily lives altogether. “You won’t know what you have until you have lost it,” as the saying goes. Decision-makers can expect consumer groups to share this analysis all over our continent.
Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.