Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Current State and Prospects of Consumer Policy: An Introductory Essay

Academic journal article German Policy Studies

Current State and Prospects of Consumer Policy: An Introductory Essay

Article excerpt

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'. …

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