The European Union (EU) has made life better for consumers. Yet, there are still major challenges such as confusing food labels, the power of digital corporations or agreeing on rules for artificial intelligence. This is the view of the new president of the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, Klaus Müller. An interview.
Congratulations on your election as BEUC President. In your view, what role does the European Union play in consumer protection and what issues do you want to push in during your mandate?
Klaus Müller: Without the EU, everyday consumer life between Lisbon and Tallinn would be more expensive, less safe and more complicated. The EU has abolished roaming charges, making phone calls cheaper. Thanks to the EU, consumers have the right to generate their own electricity. And the European deposit guarantee obligation has made savings deposits safer, to name just three examples.
The diversity of member states and their constant exchange with Members of the European Parliament is invaluable for EU legislation. The EU is empowered by the diverse experiences of its member states to be a pioneer in tackling major challenges. France, for example, has prevailed against pressure from the business community and established the science-based food labelling system "Nutri-Score" and examined its impact on consumers. We in Germany and the entire EU can benefit from this.
I now expect the EU to make the Nutri-Score mandatory throughout the EU. But there are other challenges, too.
Which would those be?
Pollutants and risky substances are a problem. There is mineral oil in chocolate, formaldehyde in coffee mugs, cars are noisy and blow exhaust fumes into the air. Europe should do something about all of this. Pollutants in food packaging should be banned. And stricter emission standards for cars are a question of political will.
A more sustainable alternative to the car is the train. Is the EU doing enough to promote rail transport?
The most recent decision to weaken European rail passenger rights was unfortunately not helpful. Those who want to steer traffic towards rail must also keep an eye on the skies. A uniform kerosene tax for intra-European flights is overdue.
Another fundamental transformation process is digitalisation. What can the EU improve here?
Google, Amazon, Alibaba and other large digital corporations have amassed incredible market power. COVID-19 has accelerated this development even further. Through these online marketplaces, European consumers are matched with traders and products from all over the world. This means a great variety of goods, but it does not always work out smoothly. The market power of these companies means that they should take on more responsibility in the course of the digitalisation of shopping behaviour. The good thing is that if the European Union wants to, it can also bind these digital giants to the law that applies here. This applies to the transparency of platforms, but also to problems with the execution of contracts concluded through them. The EU must hold the online marketplaces more accountable here.
The EU will also play an important role in the area of algorithm-based decision-making systems and artificial intelligence (AI). After all, it is the first region in the world that is preparing to regulate the impact of these technologies. Due to the opacity of AI systems, it is difficult even for experts to understand whether they make wrong decisions or violate laws, for example with regard to the prohibition of discrimination or influencing and misleading consumers. vzbv therefore demands, for example, that important AI decisions be made comprehensible for consumers. Experts and authorities must also be able to check whether critical AI systems are legally compliant. For such digitalised business processes, national rules hardly make sense any more.
In Germany, a majority of consumers want to consume sustainably. With the European Green Deal in 2019, the European Commission has provided a roadmap for more sustainability in all areas of consumers' lives. vzbv has long anchored sustainable consumption in its statutes. Is everything fine now, problem solved?
No, of course not. Sustainability must not only have a place in high-level speeches. Announcing CO2 saving targets and taxing the greenhouse gas is not enough. The Green Deal must share the costs of sustainability fairly. Shifting the costs onto the general public would be unfair and counterproductive. Preserving our livelihoods is the task of our century. This will only succeed if there is support from the general public.
It is true that the European Green Deal requires consumers to fundamentally change their consumption behaviour. However, sustainability starts with production. Only then will consumers have the opportunity to consume more sustainably and choose from sustainable products. The social dimension must always be taken into account. The approach that consumers can save the world with their shopping basket is either naïve or the strategy of those who do not want to change anything in the current system. Policy-makers must set the rules. It could start with a green claims regulation that regulates advertising claims on sustainability. This would facilitate our fight against greenwashing.