With 21 million companies and 500 million individual consumers, the European Single Market is immense, the largest in the world. Economically it’s hugely successful: by its 20th anniversary in 2012, trade between EU member states had increased from £560 billion to £2 trillion, and between the EU and the rest of the world from £350 billion to £1.8 trillion.
So we’re all better off as a result of making it easier to buy and sell across national borders, with one set of rules rather than 28. However, it’s also vital that for people buying goods and services from another country, necessary rules are in place to make sure they are protected if there are problems. That’s why increasing trade has to be balanced by an equivalent increase in protection for consumers.
For all its merits, the Single Market on its own is no guarantee of fair treatment for the customer; a classic example is the cost of making an international mobile phone call within Europe. In 1998 the cost per minute of making an international voice call within Europe was £1.14. This year that cost was down to just 13p. Of course, that was not due to the market, but to consumer legislation on roaming charges, enacted by Europe, putting limits on what phone operators are allowed to charge.
And Europe has acted in many other consumer areas as well. For example, if you’ve bought something at a distance, by telephone, mail order or via the internet, European law gives you a 14 day cooling off period during which the contract can be cancelled.
There is protection for people travelling within the EU, by train, plane, or boat, with compensation payable in the event of cancellation or delay.
There are safeguards for people buying timeshares in other countries, another classic case historically where the unregulated
market led to many abuses, which are much less common today.
Then there is the European Small Claims Procedure, which can be used as a last resort for buyers, when they are unable to get a satisfactory solution from the vendor in a cross-border case.
Backing up the various planks of EU legislation is the European Consumer Centre Network, celebrating its tenth anniversary this summer. With organisations in every member state, in Britain it’s the UK European Consumer Centre (UK ECC), it offers free and impartial advice in any cross-border European disputes between consumers and traders, and can provide intervention in disputes where buyer and seller are unable to reach a positive outcome. The UK ECC is often able to contact the trader through counterpart offices in other European countries, thus avoiding the logistical and language difficulties which customers can often face.
As we’ve seen so often over the years, markets allowed to run unfettered and unregulated do not guarantee either the lowest prices or the best deal for the customer. For the European-wide market to work at its best, effective European-wide consumer protection is essential. It’s the ‘other side’ of the Single Market coin.
Alcohol-related harm is a key public health concern in the UK and across Europe.
Glenis Willmott MEP in her role as a co-sponsor of the EU Resolution on the Alcohol Strategy has written to the European Commission’s President and Vice-President raising her concerns and calling for further action.
The letter in full:
Brussels, 24 July 2015
Dear European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker,
Dear European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans,
We address you as a group of concerned Members of European Parliament. We are alarmed by the lack of an effective or ambitious EU policy on alcohol and by the recent collective resignations of public health organisations from the EU Alcohol and Health Forum.
Harm from alcohol is a ‘BIG THING’ and deserves priority attention from your Commission.
Alcohol ranks as one of the leading causes of death and disability, killing more people worldwide than HIV/AIDS, violence and tuberculosis combined. Between 1990 and 2010, harmful drinking rose from eighth to fifth leading cause of death and disability worldwide. Europe is the heaviest drinking region in the world (twice the world average). On average we drink around 10 litres of pure alcohol per capita each year, equivalent to over 100 bottles of wine.
According to a recent study by the OECD (2015) the rise in risky drinking behaviour merits urgent policy attention as it is associated with higher rates of traffic accidents and violence, as well as increased risk of acute and chronic health conditions. The social cost of alcohol use in the EU is estimated at €155.8 billion per year. Harmful drinking is on the rise among young people and women in many countries, partly due to alcohol becoming more available, more affordable and more aggressively advertised.
The European Parliament in its Resolution of 29 April 2015 demands a comprehensive and focused EU Alcohol Strategy. This desire is also echoed by Member States, please see:
1. Call by the EU Health Council “to present a new framework for the EU’s alcohol policy” (19 June 2015).
2. Discussion on the need for a new policy framework for reducing alcohol-related harm (Informal Meeting of the Ministers for Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs on 21 April 2015).
3. Call for an alcohol strategy: “Member States call on the European Commission for a new and comprehensive strategy to tackle harmful use of alcohol and alcohol related harm” (Committee of National Alcohol Policy Action (CNAPA) scoping paper December 2014).
4. Letters sent by Health Ministers to the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.
5. The forthcoming draft Council Conclusions on the EU Strategy on the reduction of alcohol-related harm.
Harmful consumption of alcohol is a barrier to a healthy and productive society. The causes and effects of alcohol use are multi-sectoral. A consistent and comprehensive alcohol policy should therefore be led by DG Health, but will demand policy action in the areas of agriculture, trade, internal market and social affairs. The alcohol challenge can only be addressed within a framework of coordinated actions, which must also address the link between alcohol and poverty, inequality, mental health, violence and anti-social behaviour and the impacts on children and families.
We object to the European Commission’s decision to continue hosting the European Alcohol and Health Forum now that the public health and civil society stakeholders have left. The Forum would know more properly be re-named the ‘Alcohol Industry Forum’. We have serious reservations as to whether the Forum has been an effective use of public funds and has been abused as a means of persuading the Commission to shelve necessary policy proposals. We call for the Forum to be cancelled or suspended until concrete policy action on alcohol is proposed.
We would welcome an opportunity to meet you to further discuss the way forward on this important European societal and health issue.
Glenis Willmott MEP, S&D Co-sponsor of the Resolution on the Alcohol Strategy
Matthias Groote MEP, S&D ENVI Coordinator
Jytte Guteland MEP
Anna Hedh MEP
Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis
This summer many of us are planning a well-earned break, and thousands of Britons will be heading elsewhere in Europe. EU membership has some brilliant benefits for travellers, with visa-less travel throughout the EU for citizens of member states, free medical treatment abroad with a European Health Card, the best protection against flight cancellations or delays anywhere in the world, and mobile roaming charges set to end by 2017.
Every European should be able to take advantage of EU membership and enjoy our beautiful continent, but it isn’t that easy for some of us. Many of the 80 million EU citizens who have a disability don’t feel these benefits because adequate adjustments still aren’t seen as a priority. It’s unacceptable that in 2015, someone with limited mobility or in a wheelchair might struggle to spend a long weekend away because they can’t find a train that will accommodate a wheelchair.
We also need to be aware of the fact that our population is aging, and if we don’t adapt our services to cater for people who are living longer, it will be our children and grandchildren who pay the price.
I have been contacted by constituents about issues with accessibility in Europe before, and more recently signed a Written Declaration in support of Accessible Tourism. This declaration emphasises how important accessibility is to both equality, and our tourism industries. I am happy to say that it has received the 376 MEP’s signatures needed to become an official parliament declaration, sending a powerful message in support of disabled people in the EU, and how important accessibility is.
Progress in this area should be a natural next step – the EU has been a world leader in protecting and pushing for the rights of disabled people. The requirement to combat discrimination based on disability is a fundamental principle of EU law, and included in the founding Treaties of the European Union. The 2010 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also applies throughout the EU, which states among other things that disabled people are entitled to accessibility, and full participation and inclusion in society.
There have also been some great initiatives to increase accessibility. The EU disabled parking card is recognised EU wide, and allows people to benefit from measures in place for disabled drivers in each Member State.
It is clear that we are headed in the right direction, although perhaps not as quickly as we should be. I hope that by bringing attention to this issue, we can keep up the momentum for disabled people’s rights in the EU, and make sure that everyone can enjoy a well-deserved holiday.
Conservative MEPs have voted against ‘country-by-country’ reporting of companies’ tax declarations, measures that will bring in greater tax transparency and assist the fight against aggressive tax avoidance.
The Shareholders Rights Directive, which Labour MEPs voted for, will also ensure better participation of shareholders in the governance of their companies, leading to a more sustainable and long-term focus, as well as increased accountability of directors to those who choose to invest.
In particular, ‘say-on-pay’, which requires that shareholders have a say on the remuneration of directors, will ensure improved democratic participation in remuneration packages.
East Midlands MEP, Glenis Willmott, said:
“Just as George Osborne has delivered a budget for the rich in Westminster, his Conservative colleagues in the European Parliament have voted against EU action to fight tax dodging.
“It is Labour MEPs who have voted for better corporate governance in the EU, for greater openness and for shareholders having the right to hold their directors to account over remuneration – while the Tories have stood up for companies that want to hide their profits.
“This Directive isn’t just good news for shareholders, it’s good news for people right across Europe, as it will help all of us to hold these companies to account and make sure they pay their taxes where they make their profits.”
Now that the Parliament has adopted its position on the Directive, it goes forward to Member States for further negotiation.