Leading Article: A Community for consumers

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The Independent Online
AS THIS country's rail commuters know only too well, British Rail accepts no responsibility for delivering them to their destinations at all - let alone on time. The company's notorious Condition 25, which the Consumers' Association is fighting in the courts, seeks to curtail almost to nothing BR's liability for losses and trouble it causes its passengers. No Passenger's Charter can obscure this uncomfortable fact.

At first sight, therefore, the new rules on unfair contract terms agreed by EC ministers in Brussels yesterday look like a victory for the long-suffering consumer. When translated into national law, the directive will establish for the first time common European rules on what companies may and may not stipulate in their contracts with the public. On closer inspection, however, the rules turn out not to be quite so helpful.

The reasons for this are mostly to be found in the fine print. Although it started out ambitiously, conferring sweeping rights on consumers, the text was watered down before it was passed yesterday. A blacklist of contract terms that would always be illegal - such as when a company tries to disclaim liability for killing or maiming a customer - has been weakened into a mere 'greylist', in which the terms will be 'presumed' unfair, but the customer will have to go to court to prove so. Meanwhile, the Department of Trade and Industry indicated yesterday that BR's Condition 25 may remain legal, with only slight changes.

The story is a reminder of a worrying contradiction at the heart of Community affairs. In theory, the EC ought to be an institution that helps national governments to override domestic lobbies. But in scores of cases - notably the Common Agricultural Policy, through which European governments have poured money into their farmers' pockets in the most inefficient ways possible - Brussels seems always to turn out to be the producer's friend, not the consumer's.

A few individuals in Brussels have made respectable efforts to make Europe more consumer-friendly. The single market programme, which forced national governments to let competitors from all over the EC sell in their territories, was itself a giant step. Further action is in progress on matters ranging from the huge differences in European car prices to the scandalous state of European air travel.

By and large, though, average Europeans see precious little linkage between the Community's institutions on the one hand, and their own well-being on the other. That is one reason why the Danes voted against Maastricht last year, why the French so nearly did, and why the British might do so, given the chance. Everyone knows why consumers tend to be neglected: by their nature they are usually a silent majority, while producers can be relied on to complain loudly at any proposal that puts their profits at risk. Only sometimes do producers get their way by lobbying the much maligned European Commission itself; more often it is in the Council of Ministers, and at the behest of national administrations, that consumers lose out. National governments therefore have no excuse. If they want to see the Community become more popular, they must come down squarely on the side of the consumer. Yesterday's measure is a start, but little more than that.

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