Viviane Reding, the EC Justice Commissioner with responsibility for the proposed Consumer Rights Directive, has decided that the pursuit of full harmonisation of consumer rights in the EU is "no longer an option" she wishes to pursue.
Full harmonisation, which was provided for in Article 4 of the proposed Directive, would mean that EU member states could not individually give consumers rights greater than those provided for in the Directive. Inter alia, this would have meant consumer buyers in the UK losing the right of rejection currently provided for in the Sale of Goods Act 1979 as amended in 1994; a consequence strongly opposed, as noted before on this blog, by the UK's Law Commissions in a joint report published in November 2009.
But Mrs Reding has informed the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee of the European Parliament that she is prepared to leave the matter to the Parliament and the Council. Instead she is ready to consider a "targeted harmonisation" approach under which the degree of harmonisation would in each case depend on the benefit to consumers. In this a distinction is drawn between direct or face-to-face transactions (where typically the parties will be domestic actors from within one member state) and distance (typically online) transactions. Full harmonisation will apply to the latter, targeted harmonisation to the former.
It seems that the Committee will now produce proposals for such an approach in April and produce a report by September, for consideration in the full Parliament in November.
While the move away from full harmonisation is welcome news, the distinction between direct and distance transactions as a basis for the application of "targeted" and "full" harmonisation still seems problematic, since direct transactions may well be between parties from different jurisdictions while distance ones may be between parties in the same jurisdiction. Further, in transacting online, it may well be impossible for the consumer to tell in which jurisdiction its supplier is operating, and thus to know whether this is a case where full or targeted harmonisation rules apply.