EU Council adopts directive to harmonise consumer rights in distance purchases

After more than five years of consultations and discussions, the Council of the European Union has finally adopted a new directive harmonising “consumer rights in distance (including on-line) and off-premises purchases” (press release (PDF) and directive (PDF), hat tip to heise.de).

Despite the talk about “better protection of consumer rights”, I believe that the central problem this directive is meant to fix is the following:

The cross-border potential of distance selling, which should be one of the main tangible
results of the internal market, is not fully exploited.

Not fully exploited? You could blame the fact that the common market does not have a common language or that cross-border shipping costs are frequently ridiculously high, but a lot of the blame most certainly goes to the EU and the member states for having introduced diverging national versions of previous directives relating to “distance selling”.

Just to mention two obvious issues, a trader who wanted to sell to all EU member states had to deal with a period for the right of withdrawal which could be anywhere from 7 days to 15 days and with different regulations concerning the reimbursement of return shipping costs. Some countries went completely over the top: Germany introduced not just a right of withdrawal, but also an alternate “right of return” (which of course was almost the same thing, but not quite) and a unique exemption for the reimbursement of return shipping costs of orders under 40€ (only valid under certain circumstances) – and that’s just scratching the surface of this mess.

Therefore, as someone who works for small company which sells across borders every day and also as a consumer who often has to deal with merchants who – understandably – say “no thanks” and refuse to sell to countries other than their own, I do welcome this new harmonised directive. However, I’m a bit appalled that the member states are being given two further years to “incorporate the new rules into their domestic legislation”.

This lack of urgency to actually make the internal market work is – in my humble opinion – at the root of many of the EU’s current severe problems.

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