European Parliament Report, 2 February 2006
The European Parliament gave its qualified approval to newly proposed legislation aimed at deregulating package sizes for pre-packed products. Once implemented, the law is certain to affect a wide range of products available to all European consumers.
By deregulating current rules on packaging for all but a few basic product groups (i.e. repealing all existing pack sizes currently under optional harmonisation and consolidating existing legislation in a single act), the Commission aims to optimise competition for industry and to ensure freedom of choice for consumers. The legislation, if adopted, would give industry the opportunity to produce -- and customers the chance to buy -- goods in a potentially infinite range of sizes. In doing so, it would simultaneously prevent Member States from legislating on pack sizes other than those still regulated by EC law.
Such across-the-board deregulation, in the Commission's view, is in line with its global aim of simplifying internal market legislation. As Commissioner Günter VERHEUGEN saw it, “from a legal point of view, the [current] situation is, to put it mildly, quite confusing.”
However, argued committee rapporteur Jacques TOUBON (EPP-ED, FR) during a Committee debate, "better regulation" should not necessarily mean "no regulation at all". Fellow MEPs agreed and, while welcoming the Commission's initiative, decided to cut away at some of its scope. While the Commission had proposed to retain mandatory sizes for only a handful of goods (spirits, wines, soluble coffee, white sugar and most products sold in aerosols), committee members voted to retain them for six other product groups: drinking milk, butter, ground or unground roasted coffee, dried pasta, rice and brown sugar. Products such as these, as staples of the average consumer's diet, should only be sold in a restricted number of sizes, argued MEPs -- otherwise, consumers (especially the most disadvantaged ones) risk being misled into buying a cheaper bottle of milk or a cheaper stick of butter without realising that it contains a smaller volume. Selling milk in a limited range of quantities where the metric system is place -- and in quantities of 1/3, 1/2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 pints (in the 1/3 - 6 pint range) where the system of imperial units is in place -- the Parliament believes, would help eliminate such a risk. British Conservative MEP Malcolm HARBOUR noted "a certain amount of entirely misleading controversy” in the British press on this proposal, especially "about the loss of the traditional British pint".
The Parliament also voted to exclude "pre-packed bread, spreadable fats or tea" from the scope of the directive. For these products, national rules on nominal quantities will continue to apply.
Whereas the Commission had pushed for a 20-year limit on all such derogations, MEPs adopted a more flexible approach, introducing a clause that would oblige the Commission to revisit the legislation after eight years. This, they claimed, is a more appropriate solution, given that no-one today can possibly predict the market conditions in 2025.
The Commission proposal, as amended, was passed by a very wide majority. It will now be up to the Council to present a common position on the directive.