Europe 1993: Barriers lifted all over Europe: The day has arrived for the Single Market after seven years of work. But what does it all mean? We try to provide the answers

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The Independent Online
The author is Secretary of the Consumers in the European Community Group, representing 31 organisations concerned with the effects of EC policies on UK consumers.

What is the Single Market and what does it mean for consumers?

From tomorrow, any goods and services that can be sold legally in any one country of the Twelve must, in principle, be accepted by the other eleven. This should bring increased competition, leading to a wider choice for consumers. The removal of trade barriers should reduce the costs of producing and transporting goods and contribute to greater economic growth.

Could there also be disadvantages for the consumer?

National safeguards may be watered down or scrapped and it may become harder to keep out sub-standard or dangerous goods as border controls are relaxed or abolished. There is still a threat that the UK may have to put VAT on food and other items, and an inward-looking 'Fortress Europe' could increasingly shut out goods from non-EC countries, leading to higher prices.

Will the easing of border controls mean an end to passport checks?

Checks may be relaxed at borders between continental EC member states: the EC member states (apart from the UK, Denmark and Ireland) may abolish internal barriers altogether when common rules on visitors from outside the EC have been agreed. However, the UK is likely to wish to retain some checks for the foreseeable future. Airports will have to make arrangements so that from 1994 passengers on flights within the Community are not subject to the same checks as those from outside the EC.

Will the Twelve have a single European currency?

Member states agreed at Maastricht in December 1991 to adopt a single currency from 1999, provided that countries meet agreed common targets on exchange rate stability, inflation and budget deficits, and that their economies 'converge' to a considerable extent. The UK can opt out of this process if it wishes to do so nearer the time. In practice, the agreed targets will be difficult for a number of EC member states to reach and the exchange rate mechanism, the framework for stabilising exchange rates, is currently under great strain.

Will it be as easy to shop abroad as it is in the UK?

Many barriers to a common market for consumers remain, including high currency exchange charges and the lack of cross-border guarantees or systems of redress. If you buy a camera in Rome, for example, and it goes wrong, you still have to go to Italy to get a refund. And don't forget that different technical standards and systems vary across the Community - televisions, video recorders and software for example, purchased abroad, may not work in the UK.

Will I be able to bring back more from abroad?

From tomorrow, you can bring back unlimited quantities of most goods bought in an ordinary (ie, not tax-free or duty- free) shop for personal use, without having to pay additional VAT or duty (see below).

Will duty-free allowances be abolished from tomorrow?

Not in 1993, but the allowances for duty-free and tax-free purchases for journeys within the EC will go by July 1999 at the latest.

Will I be able to shop abroad for services?

Yes, but if you decide to go abroad to take out a financial service, for example a mortgage with a bank in Germany, where interest rates are generally lower, you run the risk of changes in currency exchange rates as well as in interest rates - unless there is a common currency. Member states use different systems for calculating annual percentage rates of interest, which makes comparison of costs difficult.

What will be the effect on prices, including car prices?

Surveys carried out by European consumer organisations show wide discrepancies in price for the same product. Cross-border shopping should help to reduce these differences. But manufacturers coming into a high-price market from a lower-price one do not necessarily keep their prices low: they may raise them to the higher local market prices to maximise profits.

There will still not be a Single Market in cars from tomorrow, as many dealers abroad are ignoring the European Commission's request that they supply would-be buyers with right-hand drive cars for use in the UK. Consumers' Association publishes an action pack to help buyers - Importing a Car ( pounds 8.99; tel 0800 252 100).

Will the cost of air fares come down?

New EC rules agreed in 1992 will increase the opportunities for airlines to compete from tomorrow, but the present recession and air traffic congestion on many routes makes significant reductions unlikely for some time.

Will we have to pay VAT on food and children's clothes?

The Commission still wants to see VAT charged on 'social' goods such as food, fares, fuel, publications, and children's clothing and shoes, all of which are zero-rated in the UK. The UK can maintain the zero rate until 1996, but will be under pressure to accept changes thereafter.

Will we still be able to keep out unsafe products?

Yes, but until recently agreed EC legislation comes into force in June 1994, product safety will mainly be governed by national laws. With countries generally obliged to accept each others goods, this causes uncertainty.

Will new laws lead to lower quality goods and food?

From tomorrow, purely national laws (ie, those not based on agreed EC directives etc) will apply only to goods manufactured in those countries, not to imports. Countries with high quality standards may find their products driven off the shelves by cheaper, low-quality goods from other EC countries.

The same applies to food. So, for example, UK laws on what can go into foods such as bread, butter, cheese, fish-cakes and margarine will continue to apply to foods produced in the UK: they will not however apply to food imported from other EC countries - unless there is EC legislation along the same lines. Food labelling may be improved in the next two years to enable consumers to make more informed choices.

Will 1993 mean irradiated food on sale in the UK?

The sale of food treated by ionising radiation is already permitted under UK law. EC rules on food irradiation are still under discussion but, if agreed, they may permit irradiation for a smaller range of foods (perhaps only herbs and spices) than is now allowed in the UK. In any case, irradiated foods will have to be labelled as such.

Are EC rules on the side of the consumer?

We already have EC rules on product liability, consumer credit, package holidays, misleading advertising and food labelling. New rules on product safety agreed in June 1992 come into force by June 1994. EC rules covering unfair terms in consumer contracts may be agreed in 1993,

Currently under discussion are EC proposals on the marketing and management of timeshare properties, and on the liability of suppliers of defective services, although both of these may be dropped. There may be initiatives to simplify cross-frontier consumer sales and contracts, possibly leading to a draft directive to ensure that guarantees are honoured in the consumers' own country even if the goods are purchased in another member state.

Will I be able to live, work or study abroad?

In principle, yes, but you need to seek advice. Form CVQE1 available from local employment offices gives details and free advice is available from the European Commission's free Citizens' Europe Advisory Service on 071 973 1992 between 2pm and 5pm on Mondays only. A booklet, Europe Open for Professions, is available from the Department of Trade and Industry Hotline (Tel: 081-200 1992).

What about medical treatment abroad?

In many countries, citizens have to pay at least part of the cost of medical treatment, and so do UK citizens when in those countries, unless special agreements exist with their governments. The Department of Health issues a booklet, Health Advice for Travellers in the European Community (leaflet T2), which is available from Post Offices and gives details of eligibility for medical treatment abroad.

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