Conflict over producer liability delays shoppers’ protection

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Series Details Vol.4, No.41, 12.11.98, p10
Publication Date 12/11/1998
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Date: 12/11/1998

By Myles Neligan

THE European Parliament looks set to dash hopes of a speedy end to discussions on a European Commission initiative to reinforce the rights of cross-border shoppers by supporting controversial calls for last-minute changes.

The Parliament's expected move has prompted growing fears that the issue will not be resolved by next May, when parliamentary business is due to be suspended to allow MEPs to concentrate on campaigning for the June Euro-elections.

The changes demanded by German Socialist MEP Annemarie Kuhn are opposed by a clear majority of EU governments, raising the prospect of lengthy negotiations in conciliation talks between the two sides to try to reach a compromise.

The measure, which was first proposed by the Commission in 1994, aims to make it easier for cross-border shoppers who have purchased faulty goods to claim refunds or replacement products.

It would also extend the minimum guarantee period for most goods to two years in all EU countries and introduce limited guarantees for second-hand goods.

Kuhn has angered supporters of the initiative by introducing an amendment which would make the manufacturer rather than the retailer liable for defective products.

Consumer groups argue that this is essential for the measure to work effectively, because manufacturers - unlike retailers - usually have a presence in more than one EU country.

"Producer liability would be a milestone in European consumer protection policy. It would boost cross-border shopping and enable consumers to look for the best deal without losing their rights," said Ursula Pachl of the European consumers' organisation BEUC.

But critics of the move claim that as producer liability would also legally apply to sales within one country, existing national legislation - which in most cases restricts liability to the retailer - would have to be fundamentally overhauled.

"There is no need for this directive. The problems of cross-border shopping are problems of distance and language, not of liability," said Carole Brigaudeau of EU retail association EuroCommerce.

The producer liability clause was rejected by national governments last April, and officials say that their position has not changed since then. "If these amendments are adopted by Parliament, the ministers will not welcome them," said a Council of Ministers official.

When the full Parliament votes on the measure at the end of this month, MEPs are expected to divide along party lines, with Socialist members supporting Kuhn's changes and Christian Democrats opposing them on the grounds that they will make the measure unworkable in practice.

The issue has already sparked an angry war of words between the Parliament's two largest political groups, with sources in the centre-right European People's Party accusing the Socialists of irresponsible electioneering in supporting the proposed amendment.

"It is an election year and a consumerist stance is a sure vote-winner," said one.

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