Current state and prospects of consumer policy: an introductory essay.

VerfasserMuller, Edda

1 Introduction

The current state of consumer policy is an ambivalent one. On the one hand, consumer policy has improved in terms of its status, prominence and political recognition in Germany as well as in the European Union compared to the situation in the 1980s and 1990s. Above all in the food and retail sectors, we are now seeing new preferences and a new type of consumer behaviour. On the other hand, the situation of consumers is becoming more and more difficult. While consumer policy is attempting to address certain selective problems, rapid changes in market conditions are leading to a whole range of new problems for consumers. In the following, I shall describe the achievements and deficits of consumer policy and present some ideas on the prospects of consumer policy. In general, current consumer policy can be described as being reactive rather than proactive. The political discussion and political decision-making process are mainly driven by actors from the supply side of the market, and they are guided by certain ideological perceptions concerning the role of market forces and state intervention. I have become increasingly convinced that, beyond the necessary strengthening of the institutional structures of consumer policy-making and the need of better and more effective policy instruments, it is above all the prevailing "belief system" (Sabatier 1993) that needs to be changed. And it is here that consumer policy research has a major role to play.

2 The current German and European institutional framework of consumer policy

To describe and evaluate the state of a given policy in general and of consumer policy in particular is not an easy task. Scharpf defined politics as follows: "Politics is about many things. But foremost among these, in modern democratic polities, is the function of selecting and legitimating public policies that use the powers of the collectivity for the achievement of goals and the resolution of problems that are beyond the reach of individuals acting on their own or through market exchanges" (Scharpf 1997: 1). His conclusions certainly apply to policy-making for the benefit of consumers: "... social phenomena are to be explained as the outcome of interactions among intentional actors-individual, collective, or corporate actors, that is-but these interactions are structured, and the outcomes shaped, by the characteristics of the institutional settings within which they occur" (Scharpf 1997: 1). Consequently, this chapter will look at the institutional setting of current consumer policy and the kinds of political support and power resources it is able to draw on. It will describe the measures being taken and compare them with the problems consumer policy needs to solve. In the European internal market most legislation for the protection of consumers is a joint exercise involving both national and European policy-making. Both policy levels therefore need to be discussed.

3 More power through better institutions? The German case

In recent years, consumer protection has taken on a new dynamism in Germany. The establishment of the Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection, Nutrition and Agriculture in January 2001 (1), and the creation of the Federal Agency for Consumer Protection and Food Safety and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment in Autumn 2002 have improved institutional structures particularly with regard to the protection of consumers' health within the framework of federal policy. These improvements also include the establishment of a scientific advisory board connected to the Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection (2). 2001 also saw an organisational strengthening of bodies representing consumer interests at the federal level when several autonomous organisations and their legal and political instruments were bundled under the umbrella of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations (3).

Both reforms are 'children of crisis'. They were not the intentional result of political programmes and competition among political parties aimed at strengthening the basis for a better consumer policy. Rather, the organisational change within the structure of the German Federal Government was a response to the turbulence of the BSE scandal and European reforms in connection with its food safety policy. Nevertheless, the effect was positive. Together with corresponding organisational reforms within the German Bundestag it helped to give consumer policy a prominent place on the political agenda. The former 'back-bencher position' of the speakers of the parliamentary party groups for consumer policy now became interesting for ambitious Members of Parliament.

The creation of the Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection provided German consumer policy with 'cabinet rank.' However the chief responsibilities of the Federal Minister for Nutrition, Agriculture and Consumer Protection are essentially confined to food safety and consumer health protection. Other important areas of responsibility fall under other jurisdictions, such as those of the Federal Ministry of Justice, the Federal Ministry for Economics and Technology and the Federal Ministry of Finance. Furthermore, almost all ministries have areas of responsibility that are highly relevant to consumers. This applies, for example to the data-protection area, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, and the areas of construction, housing and transport, which are all under the jurisdiction of the Federal Ministry for Transport, Building and Urban Affairs. The same applies to the Federal Ministry for Health, the Federal Ministry for Education and Research, the Federal Ministry for the Environment and a range of other ministries. Given the cross-cutting character of consumer policy, the Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection has the role of 'consumer advocate' in the cabinet and within the inter-ministerial decision-making process. The degree to which this function can be exercised in individual cases is dependent on a range of preconditions. These include a cabinet-approved programme as well as the provision of sufficient resources in the form of so-called 'Spiegelreferate', i.e. sections which monitor on the consumer-relevant programmes of other departments.

However, there are also important exogenous factors such as the political weight of the responsible minister and the degree of political and public support he or she enjoys. In addition, the programmatic support for consumer policy within and provided by political parties is of central significance.

Unfortunately, the first Consumer Minister, Renate Kunast from the Green party, did not use the 'window of opportunity' the BSE crisis offered to immediately formulate and present a comprehensive political programme for a new and modern consumer policy. Elsewhere, I have described the elements of such a programme for a new consumer policy (Muller 2001). The main message is that consumer policy needs to widen its horizon and scope. It should define its role, ambition and instruments in a way that takes it beyond a purely defensive and reactive sectoral policy that aims to protect consumers' health and economic security towards a more active cross-cutting policy. Such a policy would address consumers as actors on the demand side of the market who are essential in macro-economic terms and in terms of the global objective of sustainable development.

As the first Consumer Minister, Renate Kunast moved very late to create the internal organisational structures required to assert a presence and gain respect within the departmental decision-making process. She successfully threw the political weight that she certainly possessed as a member of the smaller coalition partner in the German government behind the ecologisation of the agricultural sector and the fight for healthier food. There can be no doubt that her efforts were central to the remarkable rise in the popularity of organic food and the increased demand for the products of regional agriculture as well as the fact that genetically modified food are still unable to gain a foothold in the German market. However, in sum, the first Consumer Protection Minister and her party did not muster the political will and lacked the political clout to fight for a policy reaching beyond crisis management and a narrow focus on 'fat kids and organic food'.

The impetus for the institutional reform of the consumer movement in Germany was also not a political one. German consumer organisations are dependent on financial aid from the government and the tax payer. This arrangement was chosen in light of the difficulties involved in organising consumer interests and collecting membership fees for the work of consumer organisations. It is also based on the nature of consumer protection as a collective good and the diffuse character of consumer interests. Mancur Olson has described this phenomenon (Olson 1965). The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs, which at that time was responsible for financing consumer organisations, was keen to save money. Consequently, it obliged three separate consumer organisations at the federal level (4) to merge and make use of synergies for saving financial resources. Here again the effect was not intended but extremely positive.

As it turned out, the new Federation of German Consumer Organisations (vzbv) started its work in January 2001 during the peak of the BSE crisis. It was some days before Chancellor Schroder announced the transfer of responsibilities for consumer protection to the new Federal Ministry for Consumer Protection, Nutrition and Agriculture and appointed Renate Kunast as the new Consumer Minister. At that time the vzbv had no approved budget and had to struggle with internal problems-the transfer of the AgV staff from Bonn to the new capital Berlin, the integration of the staff of three different organisations, each with its own social and professional culture, into one...

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