Monique GoyensDirector General
The obvious change in 2019 was the EU’s political transition: new Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were elected, and a new European Commission took office. This happened in the context of a large Member State, the United Kingdom, on the verge of leaving the bloc altogether.
Amidst all this newness, BEUC worked hard to make sure consumers are a core component of the new political priorities that follow a political transition. This is important because the EU can demonstrate its added value to people across Europe through an ambitious consumer policy.
Such a policy must address people’s concerns: from access to medicines, to healthy food, to making sure the products we buy don’t break down at a moment’s notice. Crucially, it must also take into account the climate crisis and rise of artificial intelligence.
Especially the latter two files, which policymakers can no longer ignore, rapidly took over the EU scene in Brussels and our work. BEUC’s task is to make sure the powers-that-be address both in a way that benefits and protects consumers.
To do so, we brought our members together to see where consumer policy can be of most use in tackling the climate crisis. This effort culminated in our letter to EU executive vice-president Frans Timmermans, who we asked to address various market failures that prevent consumers from living sustainably. For example: consumers who would like to live sustainably often have to pay more or make greater efforts to use sustainable products and services.
Artificial intelligence meanwhile can manipulate consumers or subject them to discriminatory treatment and arbitrary, non-transparent decisions. A lot of debate led to voluntary ‘ethical guidance’ to deal with this. We instead proposed several rights that consumers cannot live without if they are to reap the benefits of the digital transition.
Yes, there is that word again: ‘transition’. Change. Now of course the European institutions will work on many more areas over the next years. Which is why we wrote to a range of European Commissioners to make recommendations on how they can improve the lives of consumers over their five-year mandate.
And then there is the ever-lingering Brexit factor. At the time of writing, in 2020, the UK has now left the EU. But negotiations continue on a future EU-UK relationship. BEUC and its British member organisations are approaching decision makers on both sides to get the political priorities right for consumers in this future relationship. Europe, beyond the EU, remains one continent after all.
A new decade is upon us. The climate crisis, artificial intelligence and many other challenges are not going away. Let us move forward and embrace change in the best way.
The Pan-European Pension Product (PEPP) creates a new private pension scheme for consumers. Its default version includes a fee cap of 1%. This should prevent consumers from excessive payments when saving for retirement. The European Occupational and Pensions Authority (EIOPA) is now specifying which fees and charges will fall under this 1% cap. BEUC is member of an EIOPA expert group on this matter, and has called for the cost of advice to be included. If EIOPA finishes its work on time, PEPP products should be available to people by the end of 2021 (at the earliest).
As of 2021, a new law will remove the ‘A+’, ’A++’ and ‘A+++’ classes of the energy label. This is where most appliances are currently grouped, leaving lower classes empty. As a result, fewer than 1 in 4 consumers understand that an ‘A+’ fridge is the least energy-efficient on the market. It is much better to go back to a simple A-G scale in which ‘A’ is used for the most efficient products. This ‘Buy A’ message is easier to understand and triggers continuous energy efficiency innovations.
The EU struck a deal to strengthen and better fund its authorities responsible for supervising financial markets. These now have the power to take toxic products off the market if they cause significant consumer detriment. They can also better supervise the way in which legislation is applied across EU countries, with the ability to call on Member States to improve their implementation. The supervisors cover the topics of pensions and insurance (EIOPA), banking (EBA) and securities and markets (ESMA).
The EU adopted an amended ‘SatCab’ – satellites & cables – Directive. This encourages broadcasters to make their TV programmes available to people living in another EU country. While the legislation does not put an end to geo-blocking in audio-visual services, it is a step in the right direction.
The EU adopted new legal guarantee rights, which will vastly improve consumer protection as of 2022. It includes:
The EU adopted a proposal to end secrecy around scientific studies on food safety. When a company wishes to market a new food additive, pesticide or GMO, it submits studies to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to show its product is safe. Under the now amended General Food Law, which will apply as of the end of March 2021, EFSA must publish these studies at an early stage of the risk assessment process. Risk communication (including to better explain policy decisions on food safety to the public) is also to be improved.
The EU adopted a regulation which sets a maximum limit of 2g of industrial trans fatty acids per 100g of fat. This is the limit which BEUC has long advocated for and is already in place in several Member States for many years. Companies will have until April 2021 to comply.
A new Directive on single use plastic items will ban items such as cutlery, plates, straws, cotton buds, plastic balloon sticks and expanded polystyrene cups as of 2021. EU countries will also have to achieve plastic collection targets. The new law puts more responsibility on producers and stipulates that labelling about the negative environmental impact of littering in the environment will become mandatory.
The EU approved a reform of market surveillance in the European Single Market as of 2021. Market surveillance ensures products placed on the market are safe and comply with the law. Among the changes is that the manufacturer’s full name and address will have to be displayed on the product. Authorities must also intensify controls of products sold online, for example through mystery shopping.
The number of food controls and the resources allocated to them are dwindling across Europe. This is the worrying trend that emerges from our report ‘Keeping food in check’. Here we analysed data on official food controls from 12 countries. With some rare exceptions, human and financial resources for food controls are decreasing across the EU, as is the number of checks. Our report triggered a decision by the European Parliament environment committee to invite the European Commission for an exchange of views on food controls.
We unveiled the results of a test on acrylamide in food, carried out by 10 consumer groups from the BEUC network. Regular biscuits and wafers were found to be especially problematic, with a third of samples at or above benchmarks. Overall, the test showed that consumers – especially the youngest – must be better protected from acrylamide in their food. To do so, BEUC called on the European Commission to lower the current indicative benchmarks for this contaminant and make them binding on food producers.
Flexible electricity offers are expected to become a reality for many consumers in the coming years. Which is why we checked dynamic tariffs and aggregation offers provided by six companies in five countries. We found several worrying clauses related to price calculation, data protection and contract termination that should be eliminated from these new energy contracts. For instance, none of the contracts had data protection policies that would be acceptable from a consumer perspective.
We are convinced that an EU which addresses consumer issues has a strong hand of cards when it comes to responding to people’s expectations. Which is why we brought consumers’ concerns to the new European Parliament and Commission that entered office in 2019. Our Parliament work included a website, introductory letters to new MEPs and meeting them. We also published a strategic agenda for the 2019-2024 Commission and wrote ‘mission letters’ to the 10 Commissioners that could deeply influence consumer files.
BEUC’s objective is to ensure that consumers obtain a fair share of the considerable benefits of digitalisation of the economy through healthy competition. Our report and accompanying conference about “The Role of Competition Policy in Protecting Consumers’ Wellbeing in the Digital Era” underpinned this. The report provides recommendations to EU and national enforcement authorities on how they can optimise competition law enforcement in the digital economy.
So-called ‘nutrient profiles’ would stop the food industry from making unhealthy foods and drinks look healthier than they are. They restrict the use of claims such as “source of calcium” or “boosts the immune system” on foods high in sugar or fat. And yet the EU missed a deadline to publish nutrient profiles by 10 years. BEUC Director-General Monique Goyens denounced this 10-year ‘non-anniversary’ in a video.
Six BEUC members asked national authorities to investigate problematic contract terms and practices of the AliExpress platform. The most serious one being the provision in case of a dispute between a consumer and a seller on the platform: here AliExpress stated that if no amicable settlement is to be found between seller and consumers, the dispute must go to a Hong Kong arbitration court. The following members took part: Altroconsumo (Italy), Consumentenbond (the Netherlands), DECO (Portugal), OCU (Spain), Test Achats/Test Aankoop (Belgium) and UFC-Que Choisir (France).
Eight BEUC members launched an awareness campaign about the risks of buying tickets from online resellers. The main advice is to buy tickets from the official seller and authorised resales channels, and not to pay more than the price set by the organiser. The consumer groups wrote to their national authorities urging them to investigate unfair practices by ticket reselling websites and make sure these comply with consumer law. Our action built on a campaign by Swiss consumer group Fédération Romande des Consommateurs (FRC). The following members took part: dTest (Czech Republic), Kuluttajaliitto – Konsumentförbundet ry (Finland), OCU (Spain), Spoločnosť ochrany spotrebiteľov (S.O.S.) Poprad (Slovakia), Stowarzyszenie Konsumentów Polskich – SKP and Fundacja Konsumentow (both Poland), Test Achats/Test Aankoop (Belgium), Zveza Potrošnikov Slovenije – ZPS (Slovenia).
On the fourth ‘anniversary’ of the Dieselgate emissions scandal, we published a report about activities that consumer organisations across the EU have taken to get justice for consumers who were misled by Volkswagen’s fraudulent practices. The report also covers the actions and omissions of national and EU institutions. Finally, it looks at what needs to happen to correct the current huge flaws in public and private enforcement in Europe.
In 2018, consumer groups from across the EU filed GDPR complaints against Google for its location-tracking practices. Research from the Norwegian consumer organisation Forbrukerrådet showed that Google deceived users into unwittingly handing over their location data to the company and left them in the dark about how this data was being used. One year after the complaints were filed, it had not yet been decided whether Google infringed GDPR and whether the company should be fined. This is why BEUC sent a letter to the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, which is leading the investigation.
Discarded fridges, computers, printers and coffee machines are one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU, rising by 3-5% per year. It is not only putting a strain on the environment but also on consumers’ budgets. A consortium of consumer groups, researchers and repair companies aims to tackle premature obsolescence through a new a project named PROMPT. It entails the creation of an independent testing programme to assess the lifetime of consumer products.
Nine consumer groups in the BEUC network have started the ‘STEP’ project which tackles energy poverty. The organisations will provide tailored advice to help consumers bring about low-cost energy efficiency solutions at home. Funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, STEP unites consumer organisations with frontline worker associations. BEUC is coordinating the project which includes Асоциация Активни потребители (Bulgaria), Citizens Advice (United Kingdom), Κυπριακός Σύνδεσμος Καταναλωτών (Cyprus), DECO (Portugal), dTest (Czech Republic), LVOA (Lithuania), Federacja Konsumentów (Poland), LPIAA (Latvia), SOS (Slovakia), and the Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE).
Consumer PRO is a capacity building project for consumer professionals, which will culminate in 30 training programmes across the EU, Iceland and Norway. The project started in 2019 by determining the themes on which professionals could benefit from such training. We found out these themes are general consumer law, digital rights and sustainability. In addition, we identified the need for training in project management & fundraising, strategic planning, and consumer education & information. Consumer PRO will be further developed during 2020.
In November we kicked off our project ‘Competition for Fairer Digital Markets’. Supported by the Open Society Foundations, it will strengthen BEUC’s work on competition law enforcement in the next two years.
Our research and advocacy project ‘Consumer autonomy in a new economic order: EU Consumer Protection 2.0’ started in October 2019. It seeks to identify how consumer law should be adapted to better protect consumer autonomy in the digital era. The project will run for three years and is made possible with the support of Adessium Foundation.
We issued 36 press releases and were in touch with journalists 280 times.
This led to 66 interviews and over 3,600 quotes in the written press.
We organised 6 public events on health policy (60 attendees), electric cars (40 attendees), consumers in the digital era (100 attendees), flexible electricity offers (60 attendees), collective redress (75 attendees), and the place of consumers in the EU’s ‘Capital Markets Union’ project (100 attendees).
BEUC staff spoke at a total of 178 public events across all our topics.
We also had 111 meetings with European Commission staff from a variety of departments that work on consumer topics. Seven of the meetings were with Director-Generals.
It is our policy to seek funding in priority areas, identified by our members as important for consumers. This funding can be either unrestricted (to support our core work) or tied to a specific project or programme. All potential funders are carefully vetted through our due diligence process to ensure that they align with our goals and do not threaten our integrity and independence.
This grant is received from the European Commission’s Consumer Programme 2014-2020.
DG Climate & LIFE Programme
DG Justice & CHAFEA
European Climate Foundation
Open Society Foundations
The European Environmental Health Initiative
The Media Democracy Fund
Our income in 2019 was €6,697,936. This includes:
|Resources 2019||(in euros)||Expenditure 2019||(in euros)|
|Membership Fees||1,833,852||Staff costs||3,115,653|
|EU Operating grant||1,958,915||Administrative costs||563,700|
|Private resources||356,456||EU-funded projects||2,304,963|
|Total resources||6,697,936||Total expenditure||6,682,368|
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