Dispatches from the Euroconsumers International Forum

The 2021 Euroconsumers International Forum took place on the 2nd December, bringing together a wide collection of stakeholders such as high-level EU policy makers, business leaders, academics, consumer organisations, and much more, to create dialogue on the hot button issues of today, and tomorrow. Read some of the highlights here.

This year’s Forum took place in person in Brazil and online in Europe, with proceedings in both parts of the world broadcasting simultaneously. Such scale allowed us to capture and convey the breadth of consumer experiences, and ideas for the future, with viewers able to switch between European and Brazilian channels. Euroconsumers believe the power of dialogue between all stakeholders is vital to meet the challenges of today, and tomorrow. There was no shortage of dialogue and ideas at this year’s Forum. Here we’ll take a look at the panels broadcasted in the two European channels of the event, but you can now review all the panels videos also of the Brazilian channels, here.

The future of class actions in Europe in light of the implementation of the EU Representative Actions Directive

  • BLANCA RODRIGUEZ-GALINDO – Head of Unit Consumer and Marketing Law, at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers
  • PAOLO MARTINELLO – President of Altroconsumo Foundation 
  • ELS BRUGGEMAN – Head of Advocacy and Enforcement at Euroconsumers 
  • MARCO SCIALDONE – Head of Litigation and Academic Outreach at Euroconsumers
  • Moderator: LIZ COLL – Consumer Tech and Digital Policy Consultant from Connected 

Class actions are a novel concept in Europe, unlike the US. But the new Representative Actions Directive aims to change that. Blanca Rodriguez Galindo, Head of Unit Consumer and Marketing Law at the European Commission’s Directorate General for Justice and Consumers, stated one of the reasons class actions are being introduced to the Union is to stimulate much needed private enforcement of consumer rights. To this end the directive is very broad, introducing class actions to a wide spectrum of areas, including financial, energy, digital, data protection, and medical devices.

Marco Scialdone, Head Litigation and Academic Outreach at Euroconsumers, agreed the legislation was a great step forward, but pointed out two weaknesses in the legislation: 1) the huge discretion Member States have on what they can opt in or opt out of, which makes it weaker than one procedural rule for all, an 2) the fact punitive damages are not included. Punitive damages are an important element to the effectiveness of the North American class action system, he stated,  guaranteeing an effective deterrence is in place. In a society increasingly characterised by an intangible economy, by commercial relationships based not on monetary exchanges, a purely compensatory redress system may end up not discouraging conducts that produce enormous profits for those who implement them but whose damage for those who do so. undergoes is difficult, if not impossible to prove.
We shall have to wait and see how the directive plays out in practice. But either way, when the next Dieselgate happens, consumers will not be left as defenceless in the fight for compensation as they were when Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests. “Dieselgate was an eye opener” said Els Bruggeman, Head of Policy and Enforcement at Euroconsumers, “We had the same consumers, suffering from the same infringement and the same damage all over the world. Yet, while in the United States consumers were compensated within months, most European consumers are still waiting for it. One of the fundamental reasons for this is  that back then we didn’t have an European class action system. It has allowed Volkswagen to divide the global map, and later also the European map between the haves’ and have nots”. Next time around will be different, she added: “Having run several class actions in all 4 of our European countries, and moreover coordinating them in a very tight way, left us with an experience that makes every one of our future class actions more robust. And we would be more than happy to share this experience with other consumer organisations to build wider pan-European coordinated class actions.”

This was welcomed by Blanca Rodriguez-Galindo, who pointed out that the role of consumer organisations will be vital, as only qualified organisations can activate the directive: “Euroconsumers has very relevant experience on representative actions. I hope you’ll share it with other entities. We count very much on Euroconsumers in this respect.”

Matching green and digital for consumers and SME’s – A joint Euroconsumers and Meta initiative

  • NILS BEHRNDT- Acting Deputy-Director at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers 
  • EOGHAN GRIFFIN – Head of Sustainability at Meta
  • PAMELA JOUVEN – Director of SME Climate Hub
  • ELS BRUGGEMAN – Head of Advocacy and Enforcement at Euroconsumers 
  • Moderator: KATRINA SICHEL

Euroconsumers and Meta – previously Facebook – announced their new collaboration to help consumers and SME’s transition to a greener future. Why Meta? Because Euroconsumers believes we will not make it to a greener world without the support of the digital world, and both Meta and Euroconsumers share the same concern and ambition to contribute to the green transition, want to do our bit, and are convinced that by teaming up we can increase our impact.

The partnership will consist of three initiatives. Firstly, extensive promotion on the Meta channels of our sustainability campaigns to boost outreach and increase real green consumer empowerment. For example, the pilot in Belgium will focus on premature obsolescence, and in Portugal on overpackaging.

Secondly, Euroconsumers will engage with Meta’s Circular Economy team so we can share intel and ideas on issues like early obsolescence and waste reduction.

Thirdly, together with SME Climate Hub, we have joined Meta’s Green Boost Program, which aims to support small and medium businesses to make the green shift. Euroconsumers now also have an SME section on our website that is linked to the Green Boost Program.

SMEs make up 90% of businesses worldwide, and Facebook has 2 million businesses that use its platform. However, SMEs do not always have the knowledge and resources to make the digital and green transitions. Therefore the potential for positive change is enormous, by giving real tangible advice to small businesses on making the green shift.

“We call the digital transition and the green transition the “twin transitions,” said Nils Behrndt Deputy Director-General in the Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers at the European Commission. “You can’t have one without the other. They are closely intertwined but both have challenges.”

AI Cities and the Future of Urban Life in Europe

  • BART ROSSEAU – Chief Data Officer, City of Ghent 
  • TIZIANA D’OPPIDO – City Councillor for Culture of Matera
  • RICARDO MUÑOZ NÚÑEZ – Industry Lead Public Sector at Google 
  • JOSÉ EDUARDO MÁRQUEZ MESTRE – Police Intendant, Seville
  • CARLOS LOBO – Law Professor at the Lisbon University Law School, Portugal and Founding Partner Lobo, Vasques & Associados
  • JOHNATHAN BRIGHT – Associate Professor at the University of Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute
  • MARCO ANELLI – Group Service Manager Statistical Surveys at Euroconsumers 
  • Moderator: KATRINA SICHEL

In October 2021 Euroconsumers collected data on consumer perceptions of AI and urban areas in the countries of the national organisations of Euroconsumers, which showed consumers are more and more aware that AI will become a factor in their day to day lives as our survey on AI shows. This will bring opportunities…and risks, which were discussed at the panel.

AI brings great opportunities for more efficient public transport, waste collection, traffic management, said Marco Anelli, Group Service Manager for the Euroconsumers Statistical Surveys Department. Which can bring real improvements to people’s day to day lives.

However, for the potential of AI to be reached, huge amounts of data will be needed. Which will mean people feeling comfortable sharing their personal data to the proper authorities. Another problem will be explainability, said Jonathan Bright, Associate Professor at the University of Oxford, and Senior Research Fellow  at the Oxford Internet Institute. AI which makes decisions that no one can explain, will be very hard to use by governments, as it will often provoke a crisis of trust. Therefore, proper regulation of data, leading to a framework consumers have trust in, will be vital for the success of smart cities.

The BELT Project – The Transition to a Rescaled Energy Label

  • CANDICE RICHAUD – Corporate issues manager at APPLiA 
  • MARIO COSTA – Head of Store Concept and Environment at Worten
  • MARINO CAVALLO – Head of Research, Innovation and European Project Management Service at Cittá Metropolitana  
  • SILVIA BARLASSINA – Ecodesign Project Coordinator at both ANEC (the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation) and BEUC (European Consumer Organisation) 
  • STAMATIS SIVITOS – Project Manager, Life Energy at CINEA 
  • Moderator: LUISA CRISIGIOVANNI – Altroconsumo Secretary General & Euroconsumers Fundraising Program Manager 

Euroconsumers’ members DECO PROTESTE, Organización de Consumidores (OCU), Test-Achats/Test Ankoop, and Altroconsumo are partners of BELT, a key EU project that provides consumers with accurate, recognizable and comparable information on energy consumption, performance and other essential characteristics of domestic household products. The BELT project, which is funded by the EU Horizon 2020 program, was launched to promote the uptake of more efficient energy-related products.

The EU energy label is a widespread recognised label that helps consumers make informed choices. 93% of consumers recognise the EU energy label, and a majority use it when deciding on their purchases. This in turn drives manufacturers to innovate by creating more energy efficient products. The energy label helps consumers compare products, which helps them save on their household electricity bills, which has never been more important to consumers in a time of rising energy prices.

In 2021 a rescaled energy label was launched, to reflect the fact there has been improvements in energy efficiency which has led to the higher classes A+, A++ and A+++ being overpopulated, and becoming confusing for consumers. All the “+” classes will disappear and give way to a simple and more coherent A to G scale. Those participating in the BELT project aim to help and inform consumers understand and use the recase energy label.

“The combined energy savings from the energy labels and eco-design measures are expected to lead to energy savings equivalent to the final energy consumption of Spain and Poland combined,” said Stamatis Sivitos, Project Manager, Life Energy at CINEA. “For consumers what does this mean? An average of €285 s per year on household energy bills.”

Retail Payments Strategy and European Consumers

  • ROELAND VAN DER STAPPEN – Head of Regulatory Affairs at Visa
  • JAVIER SANTAMARÍA – Chair of the European Payments Council
  • PILAR CLAVERÍA – Adviser for Payments, Spanish Banking Association
  • EZTIZEN GREGORIO – Public Affairs and Media Relations, OCU 
  • Moderator: PASCALE BRIEN – Fidelis Consulting 

Digital payment methods have become more and more important to consumers over the years, but the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for this digital transition, with consumers avoiding physical cash.  A survey by Euroconsumers’ Spanish member Consumidores found  49% of consumers have increased their use of instant payment, and up to 37% have increased their use of debit cards. The panelists agreed that consumer behaviour and habits have changed, and this change is likely to remain post-pandemic. “The pandemic has changed a lot of behaviours and habits of consumers when paying. I definitely think that will last. ,” said Pilar Clavería, Advisor for Payments at the Spanish Banking Association. “One of the most difficult things is to change habits”.

A second point of agreement was that consumers must be given the choice of their preferred payment method. Electronic payments should be accepted just as much as cash, and vice versa.  European countries have taken different measures to ensure increased uptake of digital payment methods, some countries like Portugal have legislated for mandatory digital payment, to allow consumers choose to pay by at least one digital method. There are countries that have gone a different route, relying more on giving incentives  for businesses to accept digital payments and instant payments.

Security is also vital. Consumer protection will vary between payment methods, but there is a need for industry and regulators to work together to ensure digital and instant payments are secure. This will give consumers the trust to adapt these methods going forward.

“We should have a level playing field for all payment instruments,” said Javier Santamaría, Chair of the European Payments Council. “There should be no material differences in the usage [for both payers and payees].  It is about having them on equal grounds on regulatory terms”.

Announcement Session – A New Strategic Joint Work Between Euroconsumers and Amazon

  • JEREMY OPPERER- Principal EMEA Product Trust and Regulatory Affairs at Amazon
  • MICHELE CAVUOTI – Euroconsumers’ Group Manager of Product Testing
  • Moderator: KATRINA SICHEL 

The growth of e-commerce has given rise to safety issues when consumers buy online products. This is why Euroconsumers and Amazon introduced their joint initiative on online product safety, which aims to protect consumers by ensuring that all stakeholders take responsibility  for consumer safety. Within this collaboration, Amazon and Euroconsumers have committed to identifying how they can empower consumers by producing guidance for consumers and sellers around the safety of such online products.

This collaboration will address the often observed knowledge gap between consumers and some sellers concerning product safety. As part of this collaboration guidance will be provided to consumers who buy products online in Europe, and sellers will also be informed on the best practises for selling safe products. Guidance to sellers will also be provided in order to prevent and manage concerns related to the product issue.

Euroconsumers will also bring its expertise on product safety as the group is experienced in conducting safety reviews of products. Understanding what product safety really means is already a big challenge, and this collaboration is also an opportunity to educate consumers in that regard. The intention is to provide concrete guidance per product category, in order to give guidance to the consumers according to what they buy, with particular attention to procuts for children.

“We intend for this guidance to be a living document which will help us all raise the bar in customer safety,” said Jeremy Opperer, Principal EMEA Trust and Regulatory Affairs at Amazon. “The way customers are shopping in Europe, online and offline, will continue to evolve, so we enter this collaboration with an understanding that this project must evolve as well.”

My Data is Mine … 4 Years Later: New Challenges in Data Governance

  • GIOVANNI DE GREGORIO – Post-doctoral Researcher – co-winner of this years award
  • PIETRO DUNN – PhD student University of Bologna & University of Luxembourg – co-winner of this years award
  • MACHI TSOKOU – Trainee Advocate, Chrysostomides Advocates & Legal Consultants  – runner up in this years award
  • LAURA SOMAINI – Associate at Pierstone – Winner of last years award
  • Moderator: MARCO SCIALDONE – Head of Litigation and Academic Outreach at Euroconsumers

The My Data is Mine Award recognises young scholars who can offer a visionary contribution to data privacy in Europe and worldwide. For example, this year’s call for papers was aimed at exploring the best opportunities, from a regulatory and technological point of view, to build a digital environment that maximises benefits for consumers in terms of safeguarding and enhancing individual privacy while still allowing society to unlock the immense benefits that can be obtained from the increased use and study of data. Marco Scialdone, Head of Litigation and Academic Outreach at Euroconsumers, was joined by winners of the award to discuss issues of data privacy.

In particular, participants discussed the dangers of personal data being used for targeted advertising, and the fear that markets may lead democracies, rather than the other way around. That is why the issue of data and advertising is inherently political. The winners of this years awards – Pietro Dunn and Giovanni De Gregorio – advocated for a risk based approach to regulation to ensure the potential of AI to improve our day-to-day lives can be reached, while preventing gross abuse of peoples’ personal data to disrupt democracies and compound discriminatory practises. Machi Tsokos, runner up of this year’s edition, argued for a stronger approach based on human rights to put regulatory protection of consumers in the digital age on a stronger footing.

The Future of the Future: New Challenges and Opportunities. Trends, Traps and Triggers in the Relaunch of the Economy in a Post-Covid Era

  • ROMANO PRODI – Former President of the European Commission and Former Prime Minister of Italy 
  • HERMAN VAN ROMPUY – Former President of the European Council and Former Prime Minister of Belgium 
  • ADOLFO SACHSIDA – Secretary of Economic Policy at the Ministry of Economy  of Brazil
  • Moderator: KATRINA SICHEL 

The last event of the Forum was a fascinating discussion between three people who have insights into the state of global politics and economics that few can rival: Herman Van Rompuy – President of the European Council emeritus, Romano Prodi – Former President of the European Commission and Former Prime Minister of Italy, and Adolfo Sachsida – 

Secretary of Economic Policy at the Ministry of Economy of Brazil. A range of issues were discussed, such as the situation of globalisation after the Covid-19 pandemic, as many countries will now seek to “reshore” vital parts of the supply chain, so that they are not caught off guard again. The global economy will not disappear, but supply chains will come home to an extent.

Herman Van Rompuy advocated for more cooperation with companies to ensure the proper size and scale is met so that the EU may catch up on AI, batteries, semiconductor technology and more, or risk being further outpaced by Asia and the US.

Inflation was flagged as a significant point of concern, and something all nations will have to pay careful attention to, as the harm to consumers could be serious.

The day finished on a note of careful optimism, that the future contains many risks, but also so many reasons to hope. “The main task for a politician today is to turn fear into hope, because without hope, nothing is possible,” said Herman Van Rompuy. “Be it at the European or national level.”

The Euroconsumers International Forum, held annually, embodies the Euroconsumers vision of a shift from consumers being viewed as weak subjects needing protection, to consumers driving development and their future in the great time of change we live through. International consumer organisations should move beyond the idea of entrepreneurial freedom and consumer rights locked in opposition, to consumer rights and consumerism being an engine of innovation, business, and trade as we undergo the green and digital transitions.

You can watch a summary of the Forum here, and read the main conclusions from the Forum, in the Executive Summary, here.