The EU – making life better for consumers

1st July, 2014

Perception is reality. Or so they say. But for some the perception of the EU is of faceless, Brussels-based bureaucrats engaged in decision making that has no real bearing on our everyday lives. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

While the EU is busy with things that might appear far removed from our daily existence, such as subsidiarity and economic semesters, there is a vast body of work in place to ensure that we are protected from rogue traders, here and abroad, and that the goods and services we buy are delivered on time and at a level that is not sub-standard to our expectations.

Tomorrow (1st July), the EU will cut the cost of mobile data downloads within the Union by more than half; down from 45c to 20c per megabyte (plus VAT). That has a very real impact on those of us intent on catching up with emails, downloading music, pouring over the World Cup highlights or updating our status when travelling abroad.

Roaming charges are also set to drop. From July it will cost no more than 19c per minute to make a call to another EU country and 5c a minute to receive one, making staying in touch with family and friends infinitely easier, and cheaper, when travelling across any one of the 28 EU Member States. An EU cap is also in place to notify travellers when a data roaming spending limit of €50 has been reached; making the ratcheting up of exorbitant bills a thing of the past.

The work we carry out as members of the EU is sometimes dismissed as playing no real part in our daily lives. But the truth of the matter is that a range of legislation exists to protect us and help us avoid potential pitfalls as consumers, whether we’re in Limerick or Lyon, Glasnevin or Gdansk.

Changes in technology and advances in the EU Single Market mean we now buy more goods from within the EU. In the past, distance dictated that having our rights upheld when shopping online was more difficult than if we bought locally. That’s no longer the case.

The EU Consumer Rights Directive, which came into force on 13th June, aims to eradicate the vulnerabilities that previously existed for travellers and those buying goods and service either online or within the EU.

Cooling off periods have now been set down in law, giving online shoppers 14 days from the date goods are received to change their minds, without having to give a reason why. Full refunds must also be issued on goods returned within 14 days. Where the purchase of digital content is concerned, the right to withdraw from a contract now extends up until the moment the downloading process begins, giving consumers greater flexibility and peace of mind. And, in the event that traders do not indicate their terms for cancelling a contract, the cancellation period may be extended by up to as much as three months, putting the power back in customers’ hands.

As a result of this Directive, pre-ticked boxes on website have become a thing of the past. This means you will now have to opt-in for additional services, as opposed to having to remain vigilant to opting out of them. Hidden charges and surcharges on card fees have also been consigned to the consumer rights history book.

Remember a few years back, in 2010, when an Icelandic volcanic ash cloud put paid to the holiday plans of thousands of holidaymakers across Europe? Or more recently, the strike action of French air traffic controllers? In days gone by, many stranded passengers were left out of pocket despite hard fought battles for compensation. Thanks to EU laws, customers who have flights delayed or cancelled must now be given a choice between being re-routed to their final destination or being given a full refund; no quibble. Furthermore, airlines must also provide food, drinks and accommodation for their passengers, when appropriate.

Our world is opening up and changing at a phenomenal pace. Cheap airline fares and the prevalence of digital devices are diversifying our shopping habits and encouraging greater movement across Europe. Of course the EU is engaged in advancing the rule of law and democracy, stabilising economies and seeking the most effective growth measures to pursue. But it is also putting in place a system that has real and tangible benefits that are designed to protect us and keep us safe in our everyday lives.

Last week, while welcoming the reduction in the cost of data downloads across the EU, the Vice President of the European Commission, Neelie Kroes, questioned why roaming charges exist at all in a single market? There is no doubt that the EU has a significant daily impact on what we do and how we do it. However, much remains to be done in the years ahead to further protect consumers and reduce costs where we can, ensuring that the work of the ‘Brussels-based bureaucrats’ is far from complete.

Op-ed carried here: