The New Consumer Agenda, launched by the European Commission on November 13, aims to empower European consumers to make informed choices and be agents of change in the green and digital transition.  Building on the 2012 Consumer Agenda and the 2018 New Deal for Consumers, the New Consumer Agenda addresses consumers’ immediate needs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and increases consumer protection and resilience.

The pandemic has changed consumers’ consumption patterns. As people found themselves subject to confinement measures, they found it indispensable to use digital technologies to gain access to essential goods and services. This brought about a surge in consumer scams and deceptive marketing techniques, thereby increasing risks for online shoppers.

The travel sector was hit hard by the pandemic. Despite their legal right for refund, European consumers are still facing difficulty to enforce this right. In response, the European Commission and member states took action to ensure consumer protection by promoting practical solutions, such as voluntary refundable vouchers, in full compliance with the applicable rules.

The commission is committed to analyse and understand the pandemic’s longer impact on consumer consumption patterns as this will serve as a basis for future policy initiatives.

The New Consumer Agenda puts forward the following five key priority areas to be acted upon in the next five years, together with member states, at European and national levels:

The green transition

This refers to the need to reduce our environmental footprint in all areas, including housing, food, mobility and leisure. To achieve this, consumers need to have access to sustainable products regardless of their level of income or where they live. Reliable and transparent information on products’ sustainability, such as their durability and repairability, is also necessary for consumers to be able to make greener choices. Consumers also require protection against greenwashing and early obsolescence practices.

This key priority area complements other EU initiatives, such as the European Green Deal and the Circular Economy Action Plan. It also supports relevant international frameworks, such as the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The digital transformation

This refers to the fast pace of technological progress and its impact on consumers’ shopping experience. To offer consumers the same protection online as they do offline, the commission aims to tackle online commercial practices that hinder or distort consumers’ decision-making processes. These include certain personalisation practices, often based on profiling, hidden advertising, fraud, misleading information and manipulated consumer reviews.

To adapt current rules to the ongoing digitalisation and the increase of connected products, the commission will review the directives for product safety, consumer credit and marketing of financial services, thus reinforcing consumer protection in the digital world.

Enforcement of consumer rights

While national authorities are responsible to enforce consumer rights in their respective countries, the EU plays a coordinating and supporting role. Joint EU action was recently strengthened by the new Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Regulation as it reinforced enforcement authorities’ online capacity and improved cooperation mechanisms and intelligence gathering systems to address large-scale infringements of EU consumer law, and ensured a consistent level of consumer protection.

The EU has also reviewed its legal framework for consumer protection through the upcoming Directive on Representative Actions and the Directive on Better Enforcement and Modernisation of Consumer Law to substantially strengthen consumer rights by providing more digital fairness, stronger sanctions and an effective mechanism for collective redress.

National authorities will also be supported through innovative e-tools that can be used to carry out online investigation to tackle illegal online commercial practices and to identify dangerous products.

Addressing specific consumer needs

To protect vulnerable consumers, such as children, older people and people with disabilities, user-friendly and accessible information must be made available both online and offline. This in accordance with EU accessibility requirements for products and services.

To help the increasing number of consumers who are financially vulnerable, the commission is committed to increase funding for improved availability of debt advice services in member states. This service is an effective way of helping over-indebted consumers to return to financial sustainability, while ensuring that creditors are paid.

International cooperation

The last priority area stresses the importance of strong international cooperation to ensure consumer protection globally. In 2021, the commission will develop an action plan with China aimed at strengthening product safety cooperation for products sold online. It will also develop regulatory support, technical assistance and capacity building for EU partner countries, including Africa.

The New Consumer Agenda outlines how the EU’s consumer protection framework, recently enhanced through several legislative initiatives, can be consolidated through a range of actions to address future challenges.

www.mccaa.org.mt

odette.vella@mccaa.org.mt

Odette Vella, Director, Information and Research Directorate

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