Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Civil Law View of State's Role Slows EU Growth

Last Tuesday, I played a very small part in the closing panel discussion at the Society for Computers and Law 3rd Annual Policy Forum. The focus of the Forum was the European Commission’s painful review of the 15 or so Directives it has set up to regulate retail communications (and content/e-commerce) over the past decade.

It was an excellent event, and here is the link to the presentations.

Huge credit goes to Chris Marsden for persuading a stellar line-up of international speakers over the 2 days. Credit is also due to Mark Turner of Herbert Smith and Caroline Gould of the SCL for hosting the event and taking care of the endless practicalities.

For what they are worth, the points I made during the closing discussion were:
  • The European Commission continually states its belief that regulation is required to catalyse cross-border retail markets in Europe. As it was explained to me in International Comparative Jurisprudence at law school, that’s because the European, civil law, view of the world is that people should only do what the State says is acceptable, whereas the common law view is that the law should follow to regulate commerce/behaviour as necessary to resolve market problems.
  • However, while national e-commerce has surged, the evidence of the past 10 years is that the EC’s approach to cross-border markets hasn’t worked and will not do so until more the more practical obstacles to cross-border trade are cleared. As set out in my previous post, Civic Consulting found that these include language, culture, consumer preference for national products, lack of shared data on creditworthiness, tax/employment differences, difficulty in penetrating foreign markets, differences in consumer demand, lack of confidence in foreign brands, different stages of market development, lack of adequate marketing strategy.
  • Regulators can play a role in early market phases. In fact, they would gain the trust and the buy-in of market participants to any regulatory measures that may eventually be required if they first helped facilitate market participants’ efforts to remove the practical obstacles to cross-border trade and learned something about the markets they’re trying to regulate along the way. Regulating first will either prove futile, or risk creating further obstacles. In the meantime, it will needlessly interfere with national markets.
Because of the jurisprudential difference I mentioned, these points seem to find favour with the common law members of the audience, rather than our civil law friends. Ironically, EC officials don’t seem to see it as within their remit to care whether or not regulation actually will deliver a single market. They simply have a mandate to churn it out in line with the EU’s single market policy, and fuss around with reviews when it doesn't work out. The practicalities are ignored. As a result, we are doomed to wait a much longer period of time for cross-border retail markets to develop, if they ever really will.
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