EU to tear down cross-border Web shopping barriers
The European Union's consumer chief will propose new rules to make it easier and safer for the bloc's 490 million consumers to shop online in any corner of the 27-nation EU.
Some 150 million EU citizens turn to websites such as Amazon.com and EBay for shopping but only 30 million buy goods and services from another EU state, spending on average 800 euros ($1,240) a head.
"This autumn I will propose new legislation to cut back the current jungle of complex laws. I will table a simplified common set of rules for business to consumer contracts across the EU," EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva said.
She will also start work on EU rules to stamp out unfair commercial practices in online retailing.
Kuneva wants a more consistent approach to rights and practices, from cooling-off periods to guarantees.
"A single, simple set of core rights and obligations will make it easier for consumers and business to buy and sell across Europe," Kuneva said in a speech in London and made available to the media.
Past efforts to harmonize consumer rules such as on consumer credit have proved a time-consuming minefield as some states battle to avoid dilution or a toughening of national regulations.
"This will be maximum harmonization so that the same rights apply everywhere without giving the possibility for member states to go beyond what's proposed," said Nuria Rodriguez, a legal officer at pan-EU consumer lobby BEUC.
"This is challenging and dangerous as certain, more protective legislation in some member states will be put into question."
States also need to introduce proper penalties for flouting consumer protection rules, Rodriguez said.
The move is the latest step from Brussels to make itself more friendly and relevant to people's everyday lives, particularly after the rejection of the EU's Lisbon Treaty in Ireland.
There are also Commission plans to make switching bank accounts free and to cut the cost of sending text messages and downloading data abroad using a mobile phone or laptop.
The British Retail Consortium, a lobby whose members include Amazon.com, Tesco and Europe's biggest online consumer electronics retailer, Pixmania, said it backed moves to harmonize consumer rights.
"It can give a much-needed boost to consumer confidence in online retailing and will fuel innovation within retail both online and in terms of retailers with pan-European ambitions," a spokesman said.
Kuneva said in May that one in three European consumers using websites selling airline tickets were being misled or ripped off and told industry to improve or face legal action.
TEAR DOWN BARRIERS
Brussels believes that the full potential of the EU's internal market -- already the world's biggest trading bloc serving a 10 trillion euro economy -- has yet to be fully tapped.
Retailer lobby Eurocommerce said online shopping was growing and welcomed by many members but proving tricky for small shops.
"For example, a retailer selling cameras will talk with a customer for an hour showing the different cameras and the customer then leaves and buys the camera online," a Eurocommerce spokesman said.
The Commission wants to tear down barriers to cross-border goods and services to boost competition, offer businesses a bigger market and cut prices for consumers.
Kuneva said 56 percent of EU citizens had access to the Internet for shopping, and business models should not be restricted to national borders because of unnecessary barriers.
"I believe the time has come to look closely at the legitimacy of market partitioning along national boundaries, notably in online retail," Kuneva said.
She wants business and consumer organizations to develop price comparison sites that compare prices among countries.
Kuneva also wants to crack down on unannounced fees and charges faced by consumers buying online, and practices such as the use of pre-checked boxes for buying costly options like insurance when buying travel tickets.