European consumers unite

Article published on July 18, 2005
Article published on July 18, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Today, with the single market and free trade, an organisation that can guarantee consumer rights is essential. The EU’s job is to coordinate this on an international scale.

“Worldwide consumers, unite!” Perhaps this would have been Marx’s conclusion to his Manifesto had he written it in today’s world rather than in 1874. Today, consumer rights are of as much importance to citizens as workers rights were to labourers in the neo-industrial era of the 1800’s. In fact, the range of individual rights is expanding along with the range of possibilities that today’s modern world offers.

From industrialisation to e-commerce

The working class was the real force behind the Second Industrial Revolution; it was the workmen who allowed industry to be upheld. They led the birth of the metropolis and lived through the socio-cultural changes, constantly fighting for their rights. And today? In the 21st century the situation is clearly different: consumption (more of services than goods) is the real driving force. It is the tertiary sector that is essential to everyday life, more essential than an industry that has been in crisis for the past 20 years. This is the era of globalisation: where an Italian can buy a Japanese digital camera while on holiday in Spain; a German can buy shares in an American multinational which manufactures its goods in China; or an English person living in Sweden can use his or her credit card to buy a plane ticket from a German company. And it is here that often the problems start.

On the Franco-Germanic front someone is working on it

Recently there have been developments in this problematic area. Thanks to the support of the EU, now every country provides a centre or consumer association which citizens can turn to, to discuss issues not necessarily regarding their home country. Of these centres one in particular stands out; Euro-Info-Consommateurs, a Franco-Germanic association located in the German town of Kehl (bordering France), which from 1993 has informed and advised consumers from this region near Alsace, also giving tangible help for international legal proceedings. From January of this year the association has also become The European Centre for Consumers for France and since its creation it has dealt with more than 75 thousand claims. But what exactly do associations like these deal with? Christian Tirou, the legal expert at the Euro-Info-Consommateurs in Strasbourg, claims they are “concerned with educating consumers by sensitising them to international problems, by regularly releasing reports on the application of municipal law and statistics on current situations”.

These centres are necessary since national organisations aren’t capable of dealing with such problems. Tirou says “the mobility of European citizens, the opening of borders and the evermore fierce competition make this international approach to consumer issues essential”. The centre publishes brochures and advice for those who want to buy a house in a foreign country or need medical attention, but also for those who need to lodge complaints or ask for refunds after, for example, having bought a plane ticket from a foreign company that is useless due to overbooking or a broken electronic product that is still guaranteed. Indeed; being able to disentangle oneself from European and national governing, proceedings and language borders is not the easiest thing to do.

The jungle of Euro consumers, industry by industry

What role does the EU play in all of this? If the European Commission participates in the maintenance of European centres for consumers and the parliament provides support with governance and law, it would be possible to assert that “the EU’ s role is to harmonise both the conduct of the various centres and the conditions in which the citizens or consumers find themselves in” as Tirou claims. In short, an international mechanism is in motion to defend the rights of consumers. Much has been done in these last ten years, but there is a lot left to do.

In which industries are consumers more protected? Again, Tirou answers: “currently there are great results for international financial transactions, these have fairer costs and clearer conditions. The most difficult area is that of juridical procedures, almost always complex and often slow. Another critical industry is commercial electronics, there are still no thorough regulations, but since this industry is becoming ever more important, it is the centre of attention for those who have to formulate these laws and procedures, for the protection of consumer rights”.

In conclusion, the jungle of obstacles and regulations that consumers have to deal with is thickening along with the growth of the market and the accumulating facets of the economy. Defending oneself on an international scale today is just as important as it was for Marxists in the 1800s to establish the rights of the working class.