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11.4.  Appraisal and outlook of EU's consumer protection policy

    The European Union shows a growing interest in the protection of the physical safety and of the economic interests of its citizens. This is a natural evolution since the single market has increased not only the choice of goods and services from the partners, but also the risks to consumers of all the Member States from defective products, notably foodstuffs, produced in one of them. Those risks were amply demonstrated during the mad cow crisis, which originated in the United Kingdom in 1996, and the scandal of dioxin-contaminated foodstuffs of Belgian origin, in 1999 [see section 5.1.3]. While on these occasions, the European consumer protection legislation proved its usefulness at preventing the spread of diseases and contaminations, it also revealed its limits, concerning its implementation by the Member States. With the increasing number of economic transactions between individuals and businesses from different Member States, there is also a growing need for their protection from dishonest business practices through uniform measures, supplementing the different national measures. Moreover, consumer representatives should be given the support they need to be effective in increasingly complex and technical debates, and the consumer’s voice should be heard more systematically in the decision-making process.

    Consumer protection is not only a necessary complement of other common policies, such as agriculture and fisheries, but also an important factor contributing to the affection or disaffection of European citizens towards the Union. Human nature tends, indeed, to disregard all the good attributes of a socio-political organisation, such as the European Union, when a serious, albeit temporary, problem shows the defects of this organisation. This is why, the European institutions should be very careful, not only to enact European legislation, which safeguards the health and the economic interests of all European citizens, but also to impose on the Member States to strictly implement this legislation by adequate national measures.

    Consumer protection is currently faced with a fragmented set of regulations and a fragmented system of enforcement. The lack of clarity and security concerning consumer rights seriously dents their confidence and trust to the European legislation. But fragmentation is also harmful for companies, particularly SMEs, as the differing treatment of identical commercial practices in each Member State is a strong deterrent to developing cross-border sales and exploiting the internal market. Moreover, existing European rules are not satisfactory, as they concern only a limited number of commercial practices and are often obsolete, behind market developments or intended to solve a specific problem facing consumers. A greater degree of harmonisation of the rules regulating business-consumer commercial practices is needed for the development of a fully functioning consumer internal market.

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