You might not have realised it but when you woke up this morning you were more powerful than you were last Thursday – and you have a huge organisation of bureaucrats and metaphorical pen-pushers to thank for it.
Last Friday the European Union’s Consumer Rights Directive came into force in the Republic. While it might sound dull, it has given us the ability to put in their place dodgy retailers who have been employing all sorts of dirty tricks for years in order to part us from our cash.
The new directive gives us longer to change our minds after buying products online and it forces retailers to refund us money faster. Hidden charges have also had their day and those pre-ticked boxes which saw us inadvertently sign up to all manner of useless or overpriced things have also been outlawed.
Rules governing long-distance selling matter now more than ever. A report published earlier this month shows why. Research from UPC ranked Ireland among "the world's most digitally advanced economies". It said e-commerce in all its forms would be worth €21.1 billion by 2020, up from a projected €8.4 billion this year and five times higher than just two years ago.
We will spend €12.7 billion online by 2020, up from €5.9 billion this year. So we need protection and the European Union has stepped up to the plate – as it so frequently does.
Here are just some ways we are better off because of the European project.
1 Less than 10 years ago, making a four-minute call home while on a Paris trip would have cost you as much as €5, while someone in Malta was expected to shell out an astonishing €9.76 for a call of the same length. Receiving a four-minute call in France cost up to €3.97 and in Malta it would have set you back €7.96.
Mobile operators across the EU claimed they weren’t fleecing us. They insisted all the charges were fair and that there were much higher costs associated with providing roaming calls. The EU wasn’t buying it and revealed that consumers were paying up to five times more than the actual cost the operators charged each other to provide roaming services.
In 2005, roaming generated €8.5 billion in turnover for mobile operators, of which up to €5.7 billion was profit. In the summer of 2006, the European Commission published regulations aimed at ending such profiteering.
It has been chipping away at the charges ever since. Last April the European Parliament voted to end roaming fees entirely by 2016.
"This vote is the EU delivering for citizens," said Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for digital affairs. "This is what the EU is all about – getting rid of barriers to make life easier and less expensive. We should know what we are buying, we should not be ripped off, and we should have the opportunity to change our mind."
2 Pricewatch has written in the past about an unfortunate German woman who downloaded an episode of Lost while on holidays in France and came home to a bill of €46,000 in roaming data charges. She could probably have made the programme for less.
But that was then. Now, thanks to the EU, such charges have been slashed. There has been a 1,500 per cent increase in data roaming across the EU since 2008. This is in part due to the introduction of price caps in 2008, which led to a 91 per cent drop in costs. In 2010, a €50 cap came into force, following which users would have to request to be allowed to spend more.
3 We have Europe to thank for clearer food labelling and it has been to the fore in mandating that food producers display the energy content and amount of fat, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt on packaging. It has also done much on food traceability and, while some lax laws still allow unscrupulous producers and retailers to imply that food comes from a local source when it actually comes from the other side of the world, the commission is working on it.
4How confident are you that any Irish politician or Government department would compel Michael O’Leary to do anything he didn’t want to do? Not very?
Well the EU brought him – and all airlines – to heel, after an Icelandic volcano grounded planes all over Europe in 2010. At the time, O’Leary insisted he’d not be covering the food and accommodation of stranded passengers. “Oh yes you will,” boomed the EU, waving regulation 261 under his nose. Under this, airlines must provide food, drinks and hotel accommodation, if appropriate, when passengers are stranded. And there are no time or monetary limits on the commitment. Within 48 hours airline passengers got their money.
5 It is not just in the air that travellers have been protected. Passengers on boats carrying more than 12 also enjoy more rights thanks to the EU. Recent rules on compensation for delays and cancellations, as well as assistance for disabled passengers, will cover all long-distance scheduled services (250km or more), whether national or cross-border.
The EU has also passed laws to make our beaches and rivers cleaner and our roads safer. Its legislation has seen the cost of air travel plummet, growth hormones and other harmful food additives banned from our food, and countries – such as this one – forced to remove bans on homosexuality. Equal pay legislation has been pushed at the highest level in the EU and employees have the right not to work more than a 48-hour week. And that’s just for starters.
Not bad for a bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels, all things considered.
THE NEW DIRECTIVE: WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOU
The “cooling-off” period has been extended: you now have 14 days from the date you receive an item to withdraw from a contract and cancel an online order without having to give a reason.
Pre-ticked boxes are banned. You will have to explicitly opt in for additional services (such as insurance) where these are offered by a service provider.
Hidden charges are gone too: the total cost of any product or service must be disclosed before the order is placed.
Refunds will be faster: under the new rules traders are obliged to refund consumers within 14 days of them withdrawing from a contract – a big improvement on the previous 30-day limit.
You will have to be clearly advised as to the compatibility of digital purchases with hardware and software, and notified of any technical protection measures, such as limits on making copies. The cooling-off period will also apply to digital purchases, up until the moment the actual downloading process begins.
Traders will have to provide clear information on the cost of returning unwanted goods.
There will be a ban on surcharges on card fees.