What the single market offers
A few days ago Europe celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Single Market. Over the years, the Single Market has transformed the way Europeans live and relate to each other.
Since 1992, when the Single Market Act came into force, a lot has been done to make it possible for European citizens and businesses to move and trade freely across borders within the EU.
For the European consumer, the Single Market meant easy access to a larger variety of products and services and also to cheaper and more competitive prices.
The ever-increasing use of the internet and online shopping is making it even easier for European consumers to shop around for the best deals from the comfort of their own home.
One concrete benefit the Single Market brought to European consumers is that of cheaper roaming charges.
Up to a few years ago, whenever European consumers used to travel to another EU member state they had to pay exorbitant charges to make a mobile phone call.
Now, as a result of the EU mobile roaming regulations of May 2007, there is a limit to how much an operator can charge customers. This regulation has put a price cap on calls, SMSs, and data downloads.
When travelling to EU countries in 2007, consumers had to pay €0.59 per minute (inclusive of VAT) to make a mobile phone call.
From July this year, this call charge went down to €0.35 per minute. In a few years’ time, it will go down to €0.23. The cost of an SMS has also gone down considerably, from 11c in 2009 to 9c now and down to 6c from July 2014.
With regard to downloaded data, a downloaded megabyte currently costs 70c. From next summer, it will cost 45c and 20c as from July 2014.
Safer products on the EU market may also be attributed to the creation of the Single Market 20 years ago. In fact, one of the top five achievements of the Single Market, according to the European Parliament, are safer toys for children.
At the end of 2008, the European Parliament voted in favour of the world’s strictest toy legislation. Furthermore, since 1992, safety laws introduced at EU level require that all products meet certain standards, technical specifications and consumer expectations.
Product safety is also one of the main objectives of the new Consumer Programme 2014-2020, which builds on the previous one.
The coming into force of the new General Product Safety Directive will meet the goal of strengthening consumer safety.
Joint EU action through better coordination of effective market surveillance throughout the EU, such as the Rapex system, also plays a vital role in ensuring that only safe products cross the EU border.
In order to really enjoy the benefits the Single Market, European consumers, need to be more aware of these benefits and have the confidence and trust to carry out cross-border transactions. A primary objective of the European Consumer Agenda is that of empowering consumers with clear, reliable and comparable information.
Consumers need to be more aware of their EU legal rights and obligations. The European Consumer Centres (ECCs) play a very important role in this area, offering free information and help when Europeans shop for goods and services in other EU countries.
The ECCs also provide help in settling consumer cross-border complaints amicably. When amicable solutions cannot be reached between the two parties, the ECCs advise consumers on alternative ways to deal with their complaint.
Effective solutions to consumer problems play a very important role in securing consumer confidence in the Single Market. Hence, the European Commission has proposed a legislation that establishes effective and qualitative Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms throughout the EU.
These mechanisms would permit consumers to solve their problems without the need to go to court. The ADR directive will ensure that quality out-of-court entities exist to deal with any dispute between consumers and businesses.
Furthermore, this directive will create an EU-wide online platform, providing consumers and businesses with a tool for resolving online disputes concerning purchases made online in another EU country.
It is expected that quality out-of-court ADRs should be available everywhere in the EU by the second half of 2014.
Ms Vella is senior information officer, Office for Consumer Affairs, Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority.