Emil Radev: Europe is finally putting an end to dual standards in foods

With the funding allocated under the programme we are going to test product composition

In some cases, there is divergence in 90% of the ingredients, which is unacceptable and will soon become illegal. The companies will be obligated to provide clear information about every single product, so that consumers can make a well-informed purchase decision, says Emil Radev in an interview to Europost.

Mr Radev, measures tackling dual standards in product quality are going to be put to voting in the European Parliament in less than a week. Will the practice of selling products with the same brand and packaging but with different composition finally be banned in Europe?

That is right, in a week's time, a vote on the reached provisional agreement on stronger and better enforced consumer protection laws, which also deals with the dual quality products issue, is on the agenda for the last plenary session of the current European Parliament's term. The most noteworthy amendments concern the introduction of effective penalties and clear rules for coping with the existing problem of diverging product quality, also known as dual standards. For the past several years, I have been fighting so that things can get to this point in the European Parliament. As you know, following my proposal, a new European programme intended to tackle inconsistent quality standards for foods was approved last year. The new regulations, which will hopefully be approved by the European Parliament soon, specify that marketing a product as identical with a product of the same brand and packaging sold in other Member States, when in reality there are serious discrepancies in ingredients or characteristics, constitutes misleading commercial practice. In that sense, it will be punishable by law so companies will no longer be able to mislead consumers. In practical terms, this also means that if a certain product in Austria or Germany, for example, differs from the same product of the same brand distributed in Bulgaria or Romania, and those differences are not due to requirements set out in the respective country's national legislation, that product cannot be sold as identical. The companies will be obligated to provide clear information about every single product, its ingredients and composition, so that consumers can make a well-informed purchase decision.

I also insisted on the introduction of significant penalties for established infringement of consumer protection laws. With the final adoption of the provisional agreement, these penalties will be enacted. The national authorities for consumer protection will be given the power to enforce effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties in a coordinated manner, while the available maximum fine in the respective Member State will be at least 4% of the trader's annual turnover for the previous year. Within two years from the adoption of the amendments, the European Commission shall assess the effectiveness of the measures and propose further strengthening them if it is deemed necessary. All of this gives me hope that Europe will finally end the practice of selling products of dual quality in different countries.

What foods and drinks seem to be most affected by the unfair practice?

The problem is detected with almost all types of goods - not only foods but also household articles, detergents, cosmetics, etc. It is interesting to note that until several years ago the European Commission categorically rejected the very existence of dual standards in foods and drinks, while traders justified the phenomenon with the varying preferences in taste of people in different countries. In that sense, for the European Parliament as a whole and for me personally, the fact that the Commission has finally admitted that there is inconsistency in the quality of products sold in different parts of Europe is a huge victory.

As for which foods seem to be most affected by the problem - significant discrepancies are observed with foods intended for babies and children in terms of quality. Another example is the content of vegetable oil used in chocolate, with products intended for Eastern Europe often not containing true cocoa at all. Going down the list, we have fruit juices, which are far from natural in Bulgaria, and carbonated drinks, which have glucose fructose syrup instead of sugar in them. There are also cases registered in cosmetics and detergents, where the cleaning formula is of lower quality, etc. Almost no area is spared such differences in product quality. In some cases, there is divergence in 90% of the ingredients, which is unacceptable and will soon become illegal.

Your €1.3m programme for combating dual standards in foods has been approved. Will the products be tested, what is your plan of action?

The allocated money will be used to finance European-wide research aimed at ascertaining existing irregularities such as unfair commercial practices; products with the same brand and packaging but different content, and very often a considerable gap in prices; different treatment of consumers in different Member States, etc. This is the significant role that the extensive research I have proposed will play so that we have incontrovertible evidence for each case of discrepancy in product quality. The research work will include testing of the products conducted using a methodology developed by the Commission.

Which country has actually reported the largest number of incidents related to this issue? Does it impress the Bulgarians that the ingredients of their foods differ from those sold in Western Europe?

I wouldn't be able to say from where most of the double standards complaints are coming because they are coming from all countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This is a very serious problem and Bulgaria is not the only country affected. What I notice is that an increasing number of people are concerned over goods they are buying, over what the ingredients of their foods are, and compare goods bought in Western Europe with the same brands purchased in Bulgaria. Certainly, the differences do impress them because by presumption these goods have to be totally identical - same ingredients, same quality, same prices.

Actually, thanks to multiple reports not only from Bulgaria but also from the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the problem has been pinpointed and, to my great joy, we have managed to add this issue to the EU agenda.

Brexit is another crucial topic. Are the British in a deadlock and what will ensue now?

The topic of Brexit is really of key importance - for two years now it has been on the agenda of the European Union, but I think that no one could foresee the events unfolding now. In reality, we witness a deep split among the Conservatives and, most of all, lack of any plan for the future.

When the referendum was held (and it has been proven that the voting rules have been violated), none of the pro-Brexit politicians explained to the British people what this decision really means and what the impact of Brexit on their lives will be. No one proposed a negotiation plan and no one proposed a plan for the UK development after the divorce with the European Union. The problem is that the indicative votes of the recent days have clearly shown that there is no plan whatsoever. What is absolutely clear, however, is that very few of the MPs uphold the achieved agreement with the EU. In my opinion, the chances for a no-deal Brexit are growing, which means that there will be no transition period. To the Bulgarian citizens residing in the UK it means that they shouldn't wait and submit documents confirming their statute in order to guarantee their human rights. As to the effect of Brexit over the Bulgarian economy, I would say that Bulgaria is not so much dependent on the British economy, so Brexit will not affect our country as much as it will affect Belgium, Holland or France, for instance.

Will this have an impact on the forthcoming European Parliament elections?

Currently, the most serious impact of Brexit is the fact that many people see chaos reigning and realise that the populists' pledges have no grounds at all. These people simply do not have any management plan. As a result, the support for the European Union in many European countries is growing. Which is a positive effect.

What raises concern is the current impact of Brexit and the fact that Great Britain may decide not to take part in the European Parliament elections even if the exit term is prolonged, because this can call in question the legitimacy of the election process, the composition of the new parliament and the decisions it will take. So, we have to find a solution which will not block the work of the new European parliament.

There are publications which maintain that the candidates are too preoccupied with compiling the voting tickets and thus have distanced themselves from the vowed discussion of the migration issue. Is it true?

No, this is not true. The discussions on the migration issue are underway. For instance, currently a reform is debated on the repatriation of migrants to their native countries. I personally have proposed some amendments to make this process more efficient and prompt. Nowadays, less than 40% of migrants are sent back to their countries of origin, and this statistics is inadmissible. Besides, quite recently an agreement has been reached about reinforcement of the EU border and coast guard which envisages stronger European support for the repatriation of migrants as well as the formation of 10,000-strong European border police corps before 2027. Regrettably, my proposal to allow the European border and coast guard to return the illegal migrants from third countries, like Libya or Tunisia, to their countries of origin, with a view to alleviating the migration pressure on Europe, was voted down by the Socialists and Liberals. And last but not least, recently - as rapporteur for the European Peoples' Party - I opposed the idea of setting up refugee camps within the European Union and my colleagues backed me up. Thus we have put an end to the attempts to provide finances from the Asylum, Internal Security and Migration funds for the establishment and maintenance of the so-called “controlled centres”.

Close-up

Emil Radev was born on 26 May 1971 in the city of Varna. He graduated in Law and Public Administration and is currently a graduate student in Commercial Law. He has worked as a lawyer in Varna. From 2009 till 2013 he was an MP in the 41st and 42nd National Assembly. He was elected MEP in 2014. He is a member of the Committee on Legal Affairs and the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs of the European Parliament. He speaks English, German and Russian.

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