18. Last But Not Least: Strategy for Strengthening the Rights of Vulnerable Consumers and the Democratic Function of the EP
May 21, 2012
This time I have willingly chosen the last item on the EP’s plenary agenda on 21 May (monday) and the title reflects this approach. Although the end of the public debate was expected at 23:00, finally it lasted “only” until a bit later than 21:00. I am strictly convinced that the order of the agenda points cannot mean any kind of order of priority. All agenda items have to have the same level of importance as others do.
As regards the report on a strategy for strengthening the rights of vulnerable consumers, from a legal point of view it can be considered as a typical example of soft law. The EP as the main European democratic institution acting on behalf of the European people has the opportunity to articulate a political message towards to the European co-legislators: to the Member States (to the Council) and to the Commission. Hence, this current report seems to be an appropriate legal tool to highlight some principles of consumer safety so that the Council and the Commission can take them into consideration, as appropriate.
If you read the report (or a short summary of it), you could see that it touches upon several pieces of the EU legislation in different fields such as: financial sector, food, transport, internet, and liberalised markets.
Consumer protection in the EU
Firstly, I would like to refer to the Treaty on the European Union (originally called as Treaty of Maastricht) which enriched the up to that time purely economic community with other politically important areas, such as transport, environment, social protection or even consumer protection. The consumer protection is a cross-cutting issue – as it is the health protection which means that every official body of the EU shall consider consumer protection aspects in every policy of the EU. That is why the current proposal does not present a single legal act and it touches upon several fragmented, different European laws.
Since I focus – among others – on health related issues, I would like to adress only one subject of the proposal: the food security. In that case, the most relevant area where immediate action is needed is the advertising of food with special regard to e-commerce and transborder commerce. Vulnerable groups are not always able to appropriately understand the hidden messages of promotions and they are more likely to become victim of unhealthy foods than usual consumers. Not surprisingly children are likely to consume more sugar. As one MEP pointed out in the public debate, even in the European schools, there are automates providing soft drinks and chocolate. Would be another way to provide the children with healthier products (ex. fruits) instead of that? Therefore, consumer protection must give to the vulnerable consumers more than just providing information.
That proposal is particularly important since it shows that in some cases, the fragmented political groups can be united for a common, agreed goal. In that case, the outcome of the committee voting clearly shows the unique political support of the EP and even the comissioner DALLI accepted most of the arguments of the EP in his oral presentation. Moreover, he put particular accent on the importance of Research & Development in that area which has to play a special role in that regard.
Most vulnerable groups
For me, this expression is the real added value of that debate and this is why I appreciate very much that the EP discussed that issue. The most vulnerable groups, especially children were in focus of the Hungarian EU presidency’s health program in 2011. As the EP pointed out: there is neither a possibility nor a need for a unique definition of ‘vulnerable consumer’. Vulnerability can mean different things in different situations and all of us can be in some cases considered as vulnerable. However, the main identified vulnerable groups are the followings: children, Roma, pregnant women, people living with disabilities and elderly persons.
The democratic function of the EP
Since this debate started very late I think it is worth to consacrate at least some part of this entry to the realtively low number of present MEPs during the debate. If I wanted to count, how many MEPs from 754 were present, perhaps my two hands would have been enough. Can this perception damage the public reputation of a very prestigious public body which is proud of being the only democraticly elected European Institution and of representing cca. 375 millions European voters?
Do not let you mislead by that seeming contradiction since the reason behind that phenomenon is quite simple and understandable. If I am not wrong, from 19:00, there were several committee meetings in parallel with the plenary session so the MEPs could not have been present simultaneously in both places.
Why are not MEPs always present?
Let’s have a look at behind the scenes. As a lawyer having some working experiences with both the Hungarian and the European Parliament, I have some overlook on their functioning. And I know that MEPs’ duty is not simply to be present but rather the best representation of their electors which contains a lot of additional activities: organizing side-events, participating in public conferences, having special meetings with lobbying groups which can draw their interest to important political issues, participating in committee meetings, welcome external delegations etc. I have to be fair with MEPs: this is the way how democracy and freely elected parliaments work and there is a similar experience in almost every parliament all over the world.
When I was a law student in Szeged (Hungary), a Hungarian MEP made a presentation in 2002 about the national parliament and he tried to justify why were MEPs missing the regular discussions in a great number. He explained us that students could especially easily understand that public debates are like university courses: the participation is not obligatory and they have to just pass the exam. The same applies to the Parliament: the MEPs do not have to attend all the debates, but they have to vote. In addition to that there are several subjects on the agenda of the EP and MEPs are more likely specialized for different subjects. It implies that every political group has one or more responsible MEPs for a given case and their presence is absolutely necessary. If every MEPs should be present in every debate, the Parliament could not use the strength of it’s diversity and the different backgrounds of it’s members.
Therefore, we can conlude that the presence of all MEPs have a particular importance during the voting process since so can they represent the political interests of their sending parties. Even the governing political force has not a majority if it’s members are missing.
PS: On the 22 May, the EP finally adopted the above mentioned report.
I remain at your disposal.
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