By Amalia Sartori - 10th July 2012
Unfortunately there is evidence that third country manufacturers are able to import non-compliant, potentially dangerous goods into the single market
Economic competitiveness and product safety go hand in hand, argues Amalia Sartori.
A new presidency of the council of the European Union is a time for new expectations. This is never more so than when a member states takes the reins for the first time, as is the case for Cyprus. The presidency comes at a difficult time for Cyprus, as it faces a number of challenges, not least the exposure of its financial sector to Greek debts. Therefore it is encouraging that the priorities chosen by the Cypriots are highly relevant and do not lack ambition. I am particularly heartened to see an emphasis upon pursuing a “more efficient economy and governance”, including the further widening of the European single market and improving competitiveness within the European Union.
These are sensible and worthy aims. European economic competiveness will be a key component in ensuring recovery from the current financial downturn and restoring stability to the eurozone. Indeed, the Cyprus presidency has indicated that they would steer discussions towards an agenda for growth.
However, an austerity approach to fiscal policy is not the only threat to European competitiveness. Many European manufacturers are finding it increasingly difficult – particularly within the single market – as market share is undermined by cheap imports from third countries. This is understandable; the European single market offers an attractive destination for third country exporters. Nor is this necessarily bad; consumers in Europe benefit from lower prices. This is part of the reality of globalisation, and the nature of competition; third countries can often leverage a lower cost of goods or cheaper labour.
However, in order for competition to work for the benefit of all, there needs to be a level playing field. Unfortunately there is evidence that third country manufacturers are able to import non-compliant, potentially dangerous goods into the single market. This means that they can avoid the costs associated with meeting European safety standards. This should not happen; European legislation has been introduced to specify the standards for consumer good safety, and European manufacturers have accepted this cost willingly in order to remain compliant. This effectively means that European companies are subject to the equivalent of a tax on manufacturing that their competitors are able to avoid.
The reason that this can happen is, put simply, because the levels of inspection at the major points of entry into Europe are inadequate. This should not be the case; the legislation which underpins product safety is part of the fundamental principles of the EU and has been approved by the European parliament. However, without adequate policing and enforcement at member state level by effective national authorities conducting robust controls at the EU points of entry, this legislation is being rendered toothless. Without inspections, substandard goods can avoid the cost of meeting the safety standards the EU deems necessary to protect its citizens.
There is no reason why economic competitiveness and product safety should be mutually exclusive. There are many sectors where compromises on safety would be totally unacceptable – air transportation, medical therapies or food hygiene are all areas where European citizens rightly expect the highest standards. There is no reason why this should not be the case for consumer goods.
Recently, the directorate general for health and consumers wrote to the authorities in the Netherlands as the first step in an infringement procedure against that country. This action follows concerns over large numbers of substandard pocket lighters entering via the port of Rotterdam. According to the European commission’s own data, up to 40 people per year are killed as a result of children playing with lighters. As both a citizen of Europe and as an MEP, I endorse and encourage such action by the commission; I consider it reasonable that the commission has taken such action. We expect member states to perform their responsibilities by ensuring adequate levels of inspections at the ports and points of entry within their borders. Where this does not happen, the commission is right to act robustly to ensure sufficient inspections do take place.
While it is important to encourage competition, it must not be at the expense of ignoring Europe’s own legislation and regulations designed to protect our citizens. Indeed, European consumers are entitled to look to authorities, either nationally or in Brussels, to ensure that the products they buy are safe and compliant. The Cyprus presidency can pursue its objectives in restoring European competiveness by encouraging the commission to continue to apply pressure on those member states who fail in their duty of conducting adequate inspections at points of entry into the single market. That way, European manufacturers will know their competitors face the same costs in meeting safety standards. The resulting improvement in consumer safety will deliver an additional legacy to the Cyprus presidency.
Amalia Sartori is chair of parliament's industry, research and energy committee