Biljana Borzan has approximately another year of her term in the office to go during which she plans to finalize all the jobs she has started with one of the most important being formulating a unique position of the European Parliament, and opening the way towards elimination of double standards in quality of products sold in eastern and western markets.
Although the people living in the newest EU member states, including Croatia, often think that there has been no change in the quality of their lives since becoming members of the European family, this is not entirely true.
Numerous European Parliament representatives, including Biljana Borzan, have been demonstrating to their their fellow citizens that they can successfully lobby for their consumer rights both in European bodies and in Croatia.
1. Now that, thanks to your effort, it has been documented that the products of the same brand but different quality are sold in Eastern European countries, we have heard that certain companies are still not bothered by this and have no intention of changing their double standards. How do you respond to this new challenge?
The research I conducted in collaboration with the Croatian Food Agency has resulted in Croatian consumers now being better informed. Additionally, after it had been ascertained that the HIPP baby food sold in Croatia was less healthy compared to that sold in other countries, HIPP pulled the product off the market and replaced it with the one of German quality. I would like to invite other producers to follow in their footsteps. Last week, Ferrero and Bahlsen undertook to start selling the same quality products. So, some progress has been made. By the same token, the current political environment is very good and changes in the EU legislation will be made that will force companies to adhere to the same quality standards.
2. Speaking from your own experiences, how willing are consumers to fight for their rights and how much support do they get from European and national institutions in that? How much do institutions understand consumer needs, and how much company needs?
Over 80% of Croatian citizens think that multinational companies are treating them like second rate citizens. Most of them are basing their opinion on the fact that they have experienced that in practice. They mostly complain about food because that affects them the most, as well as about the quality of vehicles, domestic appliances and even agricultural compounds. We have been talking about this problem for decades, but unless you have it documented, nobody will pay any attention to you. Back in the day, I remember hearing the EU authorities claiming that we had nothing to complain about providing that a product is safe for consumption, i.e. it won’t poison us, but, now, after certain research has been carried out, the European Parliament will start formulating its official stance on the matter.
3. To what extent are production and sales rules (for food, skin care products, household cleaning products etc) incorporated into the Croatian legislation and how can we improve these rules to secure better quality? What do you recommend?
This problem can only be solved at the EU level because we are all in the common market. This is also an advantage of EU membership. If we were not an EU country, we would have no influence over the quality of the imported products.
4. How much do you co-operate with your counterparts from other countries that are in the same position as Croatia and what changes did they experience after the research? Are there any new joint initiatives?
Although it was Slovakia that did the first research in 2011, the Czech Republic is definitely the leader in this fight since it is their government that has been most vocal about the issue in the Council. Hungary has also conducted a similar research. In terms of practical results, Croatian citizens have benefitted from the example of HIPP baby food while in the Czech Republic, Pepsi undertook to change the ingredients of its beverage since the research had discovered a huge disparity in the quality of Pepsi in the Czech Republic and Germany.
5. What kind of communication do large multinational corporations and legislators have and how much are European Parliament’s recommendations and conclusions morally binding to them in terms of quality? Or are we talking about completely different interests here?
I was recently appointed the European Parliament rapporteur on dual quality. My job is to formulate the European Parliament’s official stance on this topic. Over the next few months I will meet with various consumer organizations, the industry and the representatives of the EU institutions, and then write the first proposal to which my colleagues, other MEPs will submit their amendments. My job is to bridge the gap between opposing views. This battle will be very tough because European citizens, who are heavily influenced by the industry, are reluctant to even participate in this project. However, we, from the eastern states, and my entire political group, have consolidated our ranks. Once my research was finalized, I immediately forwarded it to the European Commission. Several weeks later, EC President Jean Claude Juncker said, in his annual State of the Union speech, that the EU citizens should not be treated as second-rate citizens. He was referring to the results of the previous research. That was a powerful political moment which showed how acute the problem had become and that European leaders could no longer ignore the fact that the EU has been divided on this issue. The EU should demonstrate its unity on this practical example.
6. Recently, the European Commission and you have introduced new guidelines for donating food in the EU. Why was this initiative well received in France, for instance, while in Croatia, it did not yield substantial results despite provided incentives?
Unfortunately, over 90 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the EU, while at the same time, a quarter of the EU citizens are at risk of poverty. For several decades, some Member States have been systematically working towards increasing food donations, while others, mostly in the east, have not worked systematically enough on this. France has a well-equipped food bank and humanitarian organizations that have warehouses, vehicles and people at their disposal, as well as laws that legally bind retailers and producers to donate food. On the other hand, Croatia abolished the tax on donated food only in 2015 and the system depends solely on the enthusiastic efforts of associations and individuals. That’s the main difference.
7. What kind of co-operation do you have with the Government of the Republic of Croatia, considering that it has rejected your initiative to restrict the sale of energy drinks to children in Croatia for the sake of protecting public health, and preventing some public enterprises from charging exuberant delivery fees for small packages?
They rejected the initiative with the excuse that EU legislation did not allow for such measures to be implemented at the national level. Of course, that was not the case and I asked for a legal interpretation from the European Commission, which replied that it was up to the Member States to regulate that and that, for instance, the Commission had not taken any legal steps against Lithuania and Latvia which had already implemented such bans. In cooperation with a member of the Croatian Parliament, Siniša Varga, we have drafted laws that would ban minors from purchasing these products. The Minister of Health said that he would support our initiative. It remains to be seen how is the governing majority going to vote once the law is on the Parliament’s agenda.
8. What are currently doing and what are your plans for 2018?
My term in the European Parliament ends in the spring of 2019 and until then I want to finish the projects I have set out to do at the beginning of my mandate. I’m working on the product quality report and there are a number of consumer law packages to work on too. Of course, I want for the laws banning children from buying energy drinks to be adopted this year. Furthermore, as a member of the Gender Equality Committee, I will be working hard on the Report on Women’s Rights in the Western Balkans.