Of rules and watchdogs

As today is Friday, an article with considerations on rules and consumers rights within European Union- using some personal experiences as practical examples.

Last Sunday I was watching a news show reporting on watchdogs in Italy, as I reported on Frype/Facebook few days ago.

It was quite interesting to see how it was simply a confirmation that, also when an institution is built around a purpose that is not fulfilling as originally expected, it will shift its purpose from the original one to… its own survival.

It reminds me when I had an issue with the UK telecom watchdog (called a “pussycat” from my British colleagues): for months, I paid the service- but the line was not working.

What happened when I filed a complaint? The watchdog replied that… they were there to ensure a dialogue between consumers and companies- if they were unable or unwilling to talk, they should go through a trial: yes, a consumer fighting for few hundred pounds with a 700 million company.

So, I kept paying the monthly fee until graciously the telephone company decided to activate the line. The alternative? I was offered to pay for the remaining months in the minimal 12 months contract, as according to them the contract stated that I was given a line- not that it was working!

I had a funny experience in European Union about privacy and security- as I reported on my blog long ago (then, I stopped reporting- it was and it is just repeating the same patterns).

The main point is: there is an institutional union, but when it comes to consumer rights… each country is an independent entity, and if companies or institutions violate statutory rights in the territory of another EU member- there is no legal protection whatsoever.

And if you receive significant damages across multiple national jurisdictions- there is nobody to file your complaint with: unless you are willing to waste a sizeable chunk of your life: we need new regulations.

When I wrote to each national watchdog and the Commission… the reply was unanimous: we have no jurisdiction.

We lack a EU jurisdiction regulating the relationship of companies and institutions with consumers: a citizen is supposed to get through each jurisdiction, and then even the ECJ- fine for a company with a cadre of lawyers, not really for individual citizens, who at best (i.e. if some consumers’ association covers the legal costs) can expect to lose years of their own life to maybe achieve a Pyrrhic victory (maybe just covering the legal costs that they will need to finance).

Working and travelling and living across Europe, I saw also how other utilities behave: and, again, I find a lack of coherence- but I will write another article this week-end.

You saw the same imbalance probably in practice on the USA-EU quarrel about the “Patriot Act”-related privacy issue (i.e. EU travellers had to provide information that even their own government could not ask them without a specific need): in the end, also if our privacy rules should shield us, it was a complete surrender- it would be intellectually more honest to simply introduce the EU version of the Patriot Act.

And on consumer rights, there is another issue: continuity and transparency of public services.

My recent service experience is mainly based on Italy (until 2008) and Belgium.

Italy is (in)famous for its strikes: but years ago it introduced a kind of self-regulation (enforced by stiff penalties for violation), i.e. stating that in some days it is forbidden to strike, and that strikes should still allow a “minimum”service to be delivered (to balance the workers’ freedom of expression with the right of users of public transport to earn a living).

While I was working in Paris in late 1990s, I remember a “wildcat” strike in the RER/Metro, due to an assault on a conductor… lasting for over one month.

The way it worked? Each day we went on the platform- and discovered if that specific driver was on strike.

To circumvent strike rules, in Italy sometimes people “call in sick”- imagine: on the same day, everybody calls in sick.

But I observed an unusual twist in Belgium on a recent train strike.

Every railway station was closed: unusual- as also whenever there is a strike, everywhere else in Europe, there were still trains running and railways stations open.

Instead, on the following day I read on local newspapers the explanation: to ensure the success of the strike, seemingly the maintenance people structured their presence so that those willing to strike were on duty that week- simply, trains would not be allowed to travel.

It is the first time that I saw a guerrilla tactic applied in strikes- and few days ago I read on a Belgian newspaper that few thousands maintenance jobs will be cut.

European Union is still having to balance between the sovereignty of its individual members and creating a common space not only for its corporate citizens, but also its physical citizens.

From utilities to other suppliers, to institutions and strikers, the end consumers are often set against a barrage of “sand bagging” rules that do not allow a fair balanced distribution of rights between consumers and their counterparts: would you spend days or weeks and money to get just few EUR back?

In the past I received notifications of credits from assorted suppliers across EU. The procedure to retrieve the credit?

Expensive and time-consuming- while instead their charges for late payment were swift and immediate (and, also when wrong… try getting reimbursed!).

Or: we lack watchdogs that enforce minimal, basic consumer rights EU-wide, instead of taking refuge behind Byzantine spreads of competence: it is not just a matter of statutory rights, it is a matter of considering that the institutional time (a renewable resource) is not worth as much as the individual consumers’ time (a non-renewable resource).

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