Earlier this month, MEPs from the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) examined the European Commission’s measures to address the COVID-19 outbreak and exchanged views with Justice and Consumer Protection Commissioner Didier Reynders on how to protect consumers and safeguard their rights during this crisis.
Although the internal market is one of the EU’s greatest achievements, making trading between member states easier and ensuring the free flow of products and services, in these times of crisis the internal market’s proper functioning and the protection of consumers’ rights have been put to the test.
The COVID-19 crisis has caused unprecedented disruption of the EU’s travel and tourism sector. Travellers all over Europe saw their flights cancelled, while others got stuck abroad. At the same time, tour operators and airlines are facing cash problems as the number of bookings has fallen dramatically and because of travellers’ reimbursement claims.
In this context, the EU must carefully walk a tightrope between protecting consumers and supporting the travel and tourism sector, which is now demanding to reimburse consumers by vouchers, rather than through direct reimbursement.
Although this is against EU law, some states are already allowing this practice. However, during our IMCO meeting, Commissioner Reynders - and by extension the European Commission - emphasised that the consumers’ right to be reimbursed, as guaranteed under European passenger rights law, should be respected.
It seems that many political groups stand together with consumer organisations in allowing the practice of reimbursement by voucher only under strict conditions.
First, the traveller must retain the right to be refunded if they eventually do not use the voucher. Secondly, travellers must be protected in the event of an airline’s bankruptcy and finally, vouchers must remain voluntary. In addition, vouchers should only be used in the context of the current crisis, and allowing the (voluntary) use of them should therefore only be a temporary measure.
Another problem for consumers during this COVID-19 period is that some rogue traders are abusing people’s fears in these extraordinary circumstances by charging much more than usual for certain products in high demand.
"Consumer protection is more important than ever, and we must use all the available tools to their full extent to ensure consumers’ rights"
Since this is clearly in breach of legislation on unfair practices, IMCO MEPs urged Commissioner Reynders to better enforce existing rules.
Last but not least, IMCO is closely scrutinising those Member States and private companies designing Smartphone applications that could be used to analyse the spread of COVID-19. If, as hinted at by the Commission, apps become an essential part in any strategy to combat COVID-19 or exiting from the crisis, they should fully respect EU data protection standards.
And this is where several legitimate concerns from a number of MEPs – including myself – emerge.
When looking at the propositions on how these ideas are to be implemented, fundamental rights issues seem to be given less importance. What’s especially concerning is the fact that data can be de-anonymised if several data sets are merged. Furthermore, the existence and use of these apps is not limited in time.
Before suggesting a European approach, the Commission must ensure that GDPR principles are respected and that such exceptional monitoring is limited in purpose and time.
Also, consumers must be able to give a properly informed consent when using their data, while the code is Open Source, in order to foster security by design and make future reuse possible, something we can all benefit from.
In this time of crisis, we must preserve the achievement of the internal market and show our citizens that the EU is here when they need it.
Consumer protection is more important than ever, and we must use all the available tools to their full extent to ensure consumers’ rights.