On 20 September, Ms. Despina Spanou, Director for Consumers at DG Justice and Consumers of the European Commission, presented an overview of the initial findings of the Commission’s REFIT exercise on consumer and marketing law to the e-Regulations Working Committee of Ecommerce Europe. This provided the members of the committee with an opportunity to get an early impression of the results, and allowed them, as important stakeholders in the sector, to give the Commission their thoughts on these results.
This REFIT exercise is aimed at assessing the performance of six pieces of existing European legislation in the area of consumer and marketing law. The five criteria along which the pieces of legislation are assessed are effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and EU added value. The exercise consists of a consultation with all groups of stakeholders affected by the existing legislative framework, and a reflection on the part of the Commission with regards to the implications of the results of this consultation, and any future legislative action that needs to be taken.
Need for harmonization of consumer rules across the EU
The preliminary results of the REFIT exercise in several important ways provided support for many of the priorities that Ecommerce Europe has been working towards. First of all, this was evident in terms of the need for harmonization of consumer rules across the EU. Close to half of retailers identified the costs of compliances with different legal standards across the EU as a significant barrier to operating cross border.
Meanwhile, the REFIT exercise also confirmed the validity of Ecommerce Europe’s support for a harmonised maximum legal guarantee period of two years, in that the results of the exercise showed that this period covered the overwhelming majority of defects. Furthermore, in those EU Member States that currently have a longer maximum legal guarantee period, it was found that only a very small minority of consumers actually reported defects beyond the two-year period.
Finally, the REFIT provided very strong evidence in support of the need to simplify consumer legislation, in order for it to be better understood by both consumers and retailers (especially SMEs). This was evidenced by the fact that consumers were shown to be relatively unaware of the rights that they benefited from, as well as by the responses of businesses to the consultation. The majority of business associations and individual businesses that responded to the consultation stated that the information obligations of retailers to consumers should be streamlined. This reflects Ecommerce Europe’s view that reducing such information requirements will both reduce the burden of compliance for businesses, and increase the awareness of consumers of their own rights, as excessive information impairs the capacity of consumers to absorb such information and hampers a seamless e-shopping experience.
In response to the presentation, the members of the Committee stressed the importance of crafting customer protection legislation that is designed to support cross-border e-commerce, while not imposing additional and excessive burdens on online merchants, in particular SMEs. Ms. Spanou responded that the Commission is currently working on an information leaflet for merchants to increase awareness of consumer protection legislation and how this can be used to increase commerce. Ecommerce Europe views this highly positively, and hopes the Commission will continue to work to streamline consumer regulations from the point of view of online merchants.
In the coming months, the REFIT exercise will continue, with Ecommerce Europe being an active participant in the stakeholder consultative group, which had its first meeting on 21 September 2016. Meanwhile, a priority for Autumn 2016 that Ms. Spanou identified is the use of data gathered in the REFIT exercise for the Sales and Guarantees Directive to inform the Commission’s decision on whether to expand the rules proposed in the Proposal for a Directive on online and other distance sales of goods to all B2C sales contacts, whether they are concluded face-to-face or at distance.
Ecommerce Europe welcomes this priority, as it strongly believes that applying the same rules to all sales channels is the best policy for coherence and legal certainty, especially in a context where Omni-channel shopping experiences are the future. The full publication of the report is expected for Spring 2017, with the Commission announcing any follow-up actions thereafter. Ecommerce Europe will continue to contribute to the REFIT exercise, and will continue to advocate strongly for the interests of its members in the area of consumer and marketing law.