The ‘Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs’ (BEUC) was created on 6 March 1962 by consumer organisations in Belgium, Luxembourg, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany. Today, BEUC represents 45 independent consumer organisations from all 27 EU Member States as well as Iceland, North Macedonia, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. It is the only consumer association operating at the pan-European level with recognised standing to intervene in competition cases. BEUC’s main role is to represent its members’ interests to the EU institutions and to defend the interests of European consumers in the elaboration and implementation of European Union policies and case law.
BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, was one of the first lobbying organisations set up in the European capital in a bid to influence decision-making processes. Many others followed, and the number of lobbyists rose exponentially to the present-day figure of over 15,000. The intense pressure brought to bear on decision-makers from this multitude of lobbyists working on behalf of commercial interests, regional representations, trade unions and many others, highlights the need for BEUC to have a strong presence in Brussels.
BEUC has been an active player in the enforcement of EU competition, internal market and trade law. Case law related to BEUC’s right to access documents and to be heard in proceedings before the European Commission can be traced back to antidumping proceedings in the 1980s and 90s in Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs v Commission of the European Communities (1991 and 2000) and Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs and National Consumer Council v Commission of the European Communities (1994). In Peugeot SA v Commission of the European Communities (1990), BEUC was recognised as having standing in a competition proceeding concerning interim measures.
EU competition law gives BEUC as a consumer organisation, an opportunity for standing to intervene in both antitrust and merger cases before the European Commission where it can show a “sufficient interest to be heard”. For antitrust cases see Article 27(3) of Regulation No 1/2003, Article 13 of Regulation No 773/2004, Article 5 and Recital 12, second sentence, of Decision 2011/695/EU, which provides that “[c]onsumer associations that apply to be heard should be generally regarded as having a sufficient interest, where the proceedings concern products or services used by end consumers or products or services that constitute a direct input into such products or services.” For merger cases see Article 18(4) of Regulation No 139/2004, Articles 11(c) and 16 of Regulation No 802/2004.
Most recently, the standing of BEUC in competition cases before the EU courts was confirmed by the General Court in the appeal brought by Google against the Commission’s decision in the Google Search (Shopping) case. Despite Google’s opposition to BEUC’s intervention in the proceedings, the Court by order of the President ruled that BEUC had “a direct, existing interest in the result of the case” and thus the right to intervene since competition rules are likely to have an impact on consumer interests and BEUC’s object is “to promote, defend and represent the interests of European consumers”.
In recent years, BEUC has participated in a number of cases before the European Commission regarding competition in technology markets (Intel, Google Search (Shopping), Google Android, Amazon Marketplace), market integration and geo-blocking (Cross-border Pay-TV) and exploitative pricing in pharmaceutical markets (Aspen). BEUC has also provided input into merger control proceedings where the acquisitions were likely to impact consumers. Recent cases include Apple/Shazam and Google/Fitbit with BEUC being formally admitted as an interested third party in the latter case. BEUC has also intervened in EU court proceedings in support of the European Commission in the Google Search (Shopping), Google Android, and Cross-border Pay-TV appeals.
BEUC’s objective in competition law enforcement is to ensure that markets deliver for consumers not only in terms of competitive prices but also as regards choice, product quality and innovation. BEUC provides input to the European Commission and the EU courts on the direct and indirect impact of anticompetitive behaviour on consumers. Enhancing consumer welfare in the internal market through enforcement is and should remain a priority for the European Commission and the national competition authorities in Europe. In this regard, it is important to ensure that when looking at practices that could fall within Articles 101 and 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) through the lens of consumer welfare, a holistic approach is taken. While consumer welfare is a concept that is anchored in the EU’s unique normative system, it needs to be applied in a way that reflects the reality of consumers in today’s markets. Or, in the words of former DG Competition Director General Johannes Laitenberger “we must take an empirically driven view of consumer welfare and recognise that some consumer harm is not readily visible in price and output effects”. This is something particularly relevant when assessing practices in digital markets.
Consumers do not behave in the same way in all markets and this needs to be recognised not only in how competition law is enforced but also in other areas of law such as consumer and data protection law. Consumer organisations can provide authorities with important insights into this in consumer-facing markets.
At national level in the EU and in the context of the implementation by Member States of the new European Competition Network (ECN+) Directive, BEUC aims to ensure stronger, structural and mutually beneficial relationships between Member States’ national competition authorities and consumer organisations. The objective is to create channels of communication between consumer organisations and national competition authorities to allow consumer organisations to take a more proactive role in national enforcement, alerting competition authorities to examples of consumer harm caused by anticompetitive practices and giving competition authorities feedback and data that can assist in competition cases. Against this background, best practice at national level includes the conclusion of Memoranda of Understanding between competition authorities and national consumer groups. These exist, for example, between the Dutch competition authority (the ACM) and BEUC’s member, Consumentenbond and between the Greek competition authority and the Greek consumer organisations.
BEUC is a founding member of the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) which groups US and EU civil society organisations to develop and agree on joint consumer policy recommendations to the US government and the European Union to promote consumer interests in EU and US policy-making.
BEUC also cooperates with consumer organisations across the globe in the context of Consumers International. In the US, Consumer Reports is a non-profit consumer organisation dedicated to product testing, investigative journalism, consumer-oriented research, public education, and consumer advocacy. In Australia, CHOICE is the leading consumer organisation. Both Consumer Reports and CHOICE are members of the International Consumer Research Testing organisation (ICRT) together with several BEUC members.