Europe's Consumers Find A Voice

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TIME: Why don't European consumers view the Commission's anti-competition activities as relevant to their own situations?
Monti: In most Continental countries the way of looking at economic activities has been more through the eyes of the producer than the consumer. In this cultural context the link between the actions of competition authorities and the interests of the consumers is not well perceived, even by the consumer. For example, the liberalization of telecoms in Europe was originated from the European Commission and the advantages flow, practically and directly, to consumers. In the 21 months since it began, we've had a drop in the average price for international calls of 40% for residential consumers; for businesses it went down by 25%. Only a few highly educated consumers will be aware that all this originated from European Union actions. So we have to correct that asymmetry of perception.

TIME: You've talked about "transparency shock," but people don't see much evidence of price convergence after almost a year of the euro.
Monti: It will take a long time. We shouldn't expect a single price level across Europe. This is not the case in the U.S., despite a rather well-functioning single market and a single currency. Certainly we have to act for the removal of artificial barriers to European prices. But here we have two allies: one is the euro and the other is the Internet.

TIME: So keeping the ground clear for e-commerce in Europe is a priority?
Monti: The Internet increases price transparency, and it may make certain arrangements obsolete. We are discussing how to bring the price maintenance agreements on books, which are still there in Germany and Austria, more in line with competition principles. The more the Internet is used for distribution the more these agreements become outdated.

TIME: Administrative reforms are in the works, but what else could help the Commission be more proactive in promoting competition?
Monti: I encourage individual consumers, consumer organizations and all interested parties to speak to us, file complaints. Of course it's not a case of taking a complaint blindly as truth, but that is one useful tool for our activities. We take great interest in sectors that are of great relevance for consumers. The first decision I took in September after coming into office was a prohibition of the Airtours-First Choice merger, two air tour operators. That is something of immediate relevance to the consumer. We are now carefully scrutinizing the Promodès-Carrefour deal, about food distribution in France.

TIME: Some say the consumer has greater weight in the U.S. and Canada than in Europe. Is the consumer finally developing a stronger voice in Europe?
Monti: Acquiring a louder voice as consumers at the European level is taking place, but we must not forget this is a very recent exercise. Things are changing. Integration isn't only something that builds a Continent on the macro level; it has also given the citizen a greater role, greater autonomy, greater independence relative to the state.