European e-commerce stuck in the dark ages

Europe's single market is so splintered that its citizens can barely manage to trade with one another online.

The European Parliament yesterday presented a ludicrously long list of measures required to create a single European market for e-commerce, demonstrating how fragmented the continent remains culturally, commercially and legally after 60 years of political integration.

Only seven per cent of Europeans have tried buying things online from another European country, making a mockery of the continent's attempts to create a market as large as those powerful engines of commerce in the USA, China, India and Brazil.

Ten years since Europe boasted that e-commerce would help it become the "most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world", MEP's lamented that Europe was still so fragmented that its hopes of a commercial renaissance were "severely hindered".

European countries remain so isolated from one another that, when people in one country try to buy something from another, they fail two times in every three.

If only European countries removed the barriers between them, said MEPs, they might generate €100 billion a year from the cross-border trade they created as a result. Countries had been reluctant to remove their barriers to trading with one another for fear it would lead to job losses from oversees competition.

Meantime, European e-commerce lagged that of the US and Asia. European businesses lacked confidence to trade online. Consumers too were nervous. And there were good reasons why.

Rivers of mud
Consumer rights differed from state to state. Postal and banking costs differed too, as did VAT rules, privacy laws, copyright levies, waste and recycling charges, distribution rules, contractual standards, liability and warranties, online payment systems, technical standards, security methods, electronic invoicing, and content licensing.

Retailers were thus discouraged from doing business online with neighbouring countries. As if that wasn't enough, some countries actively singled out others for discrimination, blocking electronic trade. And bloated legal systems prevented customers from seeking
their right to redress if they were stiffed by unscrupulous foreign traders.

These fractious differences were singled out in the European Parliament almost 65 years to the day that Winston Churchill launched the EU project in the hope of preventing poverty and petty differences plunging the Continent into another horrific war.

Token open standards plug
And we haven't even got to the technology barriers yet. yesterday's recommendations included the usual loose commitments to promote open standards. Software should be interoperable, they said, or countries couldn't trade electronically.

Open Document Format got a special mention. Its "importance" was to be "highlighted". It's promotion should be done with "concrete" but unspecified "steps".

There was, however, a definite plan for the creation of a European Validation Authorities Gateway, a hub for the Continent's incommunicable systems of electronic signature. Retailers would also be given a European e-commerce badge when they had been certified kosher.

And the long list of barriers was to be removed with a long list of specific bridge-building programmes. All this was to be done by 2012, when it would "relaunch" and create a "new frontier" of the single market.