Product safety is not a light matter. In fact, in the most serious cases it's a matter of life and death.
Free movement of goods is one of the four pillars of the EU single market. This pillar and the proper functioning of the single market rests ultimately on consumer trust: European consumers must have the confidence that – irrespective of where the product is manufactured and in which member state they may buy it – the products they are using are both safe and compliant. Efficient and high-quality market surveillance must act as the ultimate guarantor for this. It should ensure products do not present a risk to health or safety of consumers nor persons in the workplace, but also guarantee products are compliant with the applicable legislation, such as the rules detailing energy efficiency, levels of noise and emission limits.
However, there are still large gaps in our market surveillance. According to the commission, only around 0.3 per cent of all goods imported to or placed on the market in the EU are checked by the authorities. At the same time, there are new emerging challenges, such as growing eCommerce.
"The question is not only of safety, but of other standards set within the EU"
The European Union rapid exchange system (Rapex) publishes weekly reports on unsafe products found in the shops all over Europe. Rapex's annual report of makes for grim reading: unsafe and forbidden chemicals, toys that fall into small pieces with a threat of suffocation, electronic equipment that may give you electric shocks... the list is long. In 2012, clothing, textiles and fashion items, as well as toys were the most common product categories where there had been most notifications. This follows the pattern of earlier years. The most notified risks included different types of injuries, chemical risks and strangulation.
The question is not only of safety, but of other standards set within the EU. For example, on many areas the EU has set very ambitious energy efficiency and environmental standards for different products or machinery. The companies that play by the rules use considerable resources to comply – something which also cost them considerable amounts of money.
These good players are penalised by the fact that surveillance doesn't work as well as it should. If market surveillance doesn't work, the rogue players can market their products more cheaply within the EU, simply because they don't follow the set rules. A fair and level playing field must be ensured for the economic operators; those who play by the rules should not be penalised by the system's inability to catch and punish those that deliberately do not.
This calls for action. Earlier last year, the commission proposed a package of two legislative proposals, both aimed at improving the safety of the products circulating on the European market: the consumer product safety regulation and market surveillance regulation. This package aimed at addressing the shortcomings of the current legislative framework, something which was highlighted earlier by the parliament in a report dating back to 2011.
At the moment, there is a lack of consistency in European Union product safety requirements for harmonised products on the one hand, and non-harmonised consumer products on the other, as well as between consumer products and products intended for professional use. Another source of ambiguity stems from the different layers of EU product safety rules.
Following this, the parliament proposed that the commission should establish a common European framework for market surveillance that would concern all products on the internal market or entering the EU market. This new regulation would also address a number of other shortcomings of the current legislation.
Currently, one of the problems stems from the weak coordination, cooperation and information exchange between the product safety market surveillance authorities of different member states.
The proposal sought to rectify this through provisions aimed at enhancing information and work-sharing, as well as mutual assistance among the authorities. In addition, parliament's internal market and consumer protection (IMCO) committee also added stronger rules on deterrent penalties to the proposal, to make sure that market participants would truly be deterred from breaking the rules.
As the renewal of these rules is indispensable for ensuring proper functioning of the internal market, the IMCO committee proceeded swiftly and efficiently with these files. Unfortunately, the council didn't follow suit. The package is stuck with the member states for the time being.
With this, the member states are missing a valuable opportunity to improve the safety of the products in their shops and to ensure our single market provides for a truly level playing field for all its participants.