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Germany

German Government Approves Consumer Protection Plan

Germany’s cabinet on Wednesday approved a wide-ranging plan that calls for greater transparency and information for the country's consumers.

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Consumer Protection Minister Renate Künast's hopes to defend the German shopper.

Up to now, Germany’s center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens focused mostly on food safety when discussing consumer protection. But the heart of a new consumer affairs proposal from German Consumer Protection Minister Renate Künast focuses on better information for consumers.

"We basically want to strengthen consumers as equal partners in market participation, so that they can act on their own behalf. Information is the basic building block for making independent decisions. Freedom of choice and information belong together," said Künast,

Specifically, the plan says authorities should be able to warn consumers as soon as they have a well founded suspicion of a health threat from foods, cosmetics or other consumer goods. Currently, proof is needed before a warning can be issued. Künast's plan also calls for greater consumer protection from shady financial-services companies, more transparency in home building, and more clarity in child-care and health-care contracts.

New unified law

But food safety remains important for Künast and the plan foresees the creation of a new, all-encompassing food-safety law that would comprise all present regulations.

In the area of capital investments, the plan calls for more protection for consumers by extending the personal liability of individuals sitting on boards of directors supervisory boards.

Also, Künast wants to revive an old idea from the past legislative period: the consumer information law. Back then, the law ran aground on opposition from the Christian Democrats, which controls the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber.

An especially explosive aspect of the plan is its inclusion of the Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national rail system. Recently, the minister criticized the Bahn's new pricing system, and raised the ire of Bahn chief Hartmut Mehdorn. Now, Künast wants to work together with Mehdorn to make the Bahn more consumer friendly.

An "opportunity" for business

Künast said she believes the policy presents an opportunity for business: “We have a world-wide trend of deregulation, we have opening of the markets. If we want markets to function, then I think it is a good idea for political debate to take consumer protection into consideration."

As part of the new plan, the government also passed an amendment to a law regulating unfair competition.

But many observers are doubtful as to whether the new proposals will go over any better the opposition this time around. The chief of consumer protection for the conservative opposition, Ursule Heinen, accused the plan of being too general and not innovative enough.

Consumer protection groups were also highly critical of the plan. Edda Müller, the head of a political action group promoting consumer rights, said the policy lacked concrete goals and omitted key areas. "The big picture was lost amid many little mundane political plans," she said. And the consumer group foodwatch derided the plan as "a collection of vague starting points and suggestions."

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