Where consumer protection is concerned, says Peter Wilsher, Europe still remains a jungle.
If you buy a washing machine or a toaster anywhere in the European Community these days, you can be reasonably sure that your purchase will meet more or less the same set of specifications. When the brochure says (in whatever language) that it will handle delicate fabrics or deal with bread slices up to 15 millimetres in thickness or operate on 240 volts then that is what your purchase can be expected to achieve. That, after all, was the point of setting up a single market - to facilitate the free movement of goods. Local idiosyncracy is acceptable only when it adds value: otherwise it is to be legislated or 'harmonised' away as a restraint on trade.
Things may turn out very differently, though, when you find that your prized new possession does not work. Those magic figures 1992 may have brought crucial and far-reaching changes to the world of goods and services (even if many of them are still a fair way from full implementation). But when it comes to things like guarantees and the ease, or otherwise, with which they can be exercised, that date means no more than 1066 or 1815. Where consumer protection is concerned, Europe remains a jungle.
This autumn the EC Commssion has been bracing itself to start cutting through the tangle of differing rules, rights and interpretations. Its officials rightly see these as a major obstacle in the drive towards genuinely free commerce. After all, who would sensibly go abroad to make a major investment like a car or a life insurance policy if it involves even a remote chance of having to challenge the small print amid the unknown terrors of a foreign court? While the consumers remain dubious about the purchase conditions - and particularly about responsibility for possible major repair bills - they just won't put their money down.
The would-be reformers, though, know that they have a major job on their hands. Even the basic idea of a warranty varies enormously as you travel from, say, Aberdeen to Albi, Antwerp or Augsburg (not to mention Avila or Athens or Ancona). To start with the idea, so familiar in Britain, that goods offered for sale must be of 'merchantable quality' and generally fit for their ostensible purpose has failed to take root in many Continental countries. Often, so long as there are no obvious and visible defects (one wheel missing, perhaps?) anything goes.
The European Consumers Union has a library of horror stories about the problems of getting guarantees honoured.
The normally meticulous Germans, oddly enough, are regarded as particularly cavalier, especially when it comes to limiting the amount of protection actually on offer - while the Dutch and the French remain consistently at the top of the class.
France, in fact, is in many ways a shining example. Some of its manufacturers are prepared to stand behind their products for up to 30 years, whereas even in well-behaved Britain it is common for the offer of free part-replacements to lapse after six months or a year.
The ideal that the Eurocrats would like to see enacted is a truly Europe-wide form of guarantee. There is nothing extraordinary or impossible here: many multinational companies, such as Philips or Braun, offer such back-up already on a wide range of consumer items. But even for them there are complexities and quirks. In some countries it is the producer who is ultimately responsible for honouring the warranty, in others the seller takes the strain. Making protection uniform or obligatory would involve replacing such a thicket of national legislation that even the most enthusiastic proponents quail. The best they can come up with for the moment is a 'discussion paper' designed to nudge managements and governments in the right direction. After that, it is hoped, market forces will take over and the sales-success of those offering the best warranties will gradually drive the less good to mend their ways.
Companies on their own, however, can only go part of the way. The playing field will not be truly level until customers can rely on getting relatively cheap and easy legal redress when there is a dispute. Here Britain's small claims courts score well, and both Ireland and the Netherlands also make it simple, in straightforward civil cases, for aggrieved parties to sort out their differences without time-and-money consuming resort to lawyers. But with some less enlightened EC members, the legal process still carries strong overtones of Kafka and of Dickens' Circumlocution Office, and unwary amateur litigants can only too quickly find the dark waters closing over their heads. The Commission is too tactful to specify particular offenders, but Italy, Germany and Greece, in their different ways, are probably all in their sights.
Here, too, there is little hope of an overnight miracle. Lawyers being lawyers (and usually forming at least a blocking minority in any national Parliament) expect every wrinkle of the 'subsidiarity' argument to be pleaded in defence of the status quo ante. But work is at least proceeding on a definition of 'best practice'. For once, this seems to be an area where Brussels is firmly on the side of the angels.
Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.