Non-EU businesses and enforcement of EU product safety rules: a major challenge that must be addressed

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Six consumer groups from Europe published the results of a test carried out on 250 products bought online showing a worrying result, as 66% of these products – mostly directly coming from China – seemed not to comply with EU product safety regulations. Ecommerce Europe is also alarmed by this situation and stands for the principle that products being sold to European consumers should be safe and compliant with EU requirements. This study clearly shows a significant issue with regards to the enforcement of essential EU law for safety of products.

Currently, EU countries are responsible for market surveillance on their territory. Their national authorities are responsible for checking whether products available on the market are safe and ensuring that EU product safety legislation and rules are applied. European consumers are very often attracted by cheaper prices of products coming from non-EU sellers, who can often apply lower prices by exploiting the current lack of EU enforcement and loopholes. As a result, Europe is flooded with an increasing number of parcels coming from outside the Union. Such an amount makes it practically impossible for national authorities to check every parcel at customs. “The lack of enforcement stems basically from the fact that market surveillance authorities, which cooperate with customs ones, are too often under-resourced and under-staffed to be able to face these volumes,” said Marlene ten Ham, Ecommerce Europe’s Secretary General, commenting on the study.

Monitoring markets is not just crucial for protecting  people from dangerous products but also for ensuring a level playing field for businesses. In this perspective, a new EU Regulation on Market Surveillance and Product Compliance, which will apply as of July 2021, is supposed to improve product compliance controls at EU borders by laying down rules and procedures for economic operators, strengthening market surveillance of products covered by EU harmonization legislation and providing a framework for controls at the EU border.

These measures will have the greatest impact on online sales and is expected to reduce the amount of unsafe products in the EU. In fact, the regulation prohibits placing certain goods on the market unless an economic operator established in the Union is identified as responsible for ensuring the availability of the conformity documentation, cooperating with market surveillance authorities and informing authorities when they have reasons to believe that a product presents a risk.

Ecommerce Europe wants to stress that EU Member States must step up their efforts and put more resources at the disposal of national authorities so that they are able to properly carry out essential safety checks on products coming from outside the Union, whether they are coming to Europe as direct imports or through an intermediary. At the same time, EU policymakers should assess what is still needed from a regulatory perspective and take necessary actions to address any gaps in enforcement, also to restore the level playing field between non-EU and EU companies, the latter being in a position of competitive disadvantage.

Ecommerce Europe has been advocating for tackling the problem of unfair competition from players based outside the Union, for instance by strongly supporting the removal of distorting EU rules, such as the VAT exemption for small consignments, and by advocating necessary changes in the international postal framework of the Universal Postal Union. However, enforcement of essential EU rules such as consumer protection or product safety against non-EU companies remains a major issue, thus EU legislators should make sure that the rules they create are enforceable globally, to protect both European consumers and businesses.

These actions should be further complemented by appropriate non-regulatory activities such as consumer awareness campaigns promoted by various European consumer organizations, while, from the industry side, pan-EU trustmark labels like the Ecommerce Europe Trustmark can help achieve a greater level of consumer safety when shopping online.

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