How the EU got me a free iPhone

Knowing EU law is more useful than it seems, as Jon Worth found out.

My 16 month old iPhone 4S had a hardware fault: the power button on the top of the phone would not press properly, it was partially stuck. You had to push the button with all your might to get the thing to turn off, or just to turn off the screen. It turns out this is a very common iPhone 4 and 4S problem – see here, as well as numerous similar posts on Apple’s forums.

I’d bought the phone from the Apple Store online, so had to go to an Apple Store to get someone to have a look at it. There is no store in Copenhagen or Brussels, so I went to the Geneva store when I was working in Switzerland last week. I booked my appointment at Genius Bar, and – in French – started to explain my problem. Barely had I got to the end of the sentence and the guy knew exactly what I was about to report… but he couldn’t help me. My phone was out of warranty, and I had not bought it in Switzerland.

The latter is important, because my case for getting a new phone, for free, from Apple, was by citing Directive 1999/44/EC about guarantees for electronic goods in the EU. This basically says that if a fault was in the product when it was purchased, the manufacturer will have to take it back and replace it within the first 2 years – i.e. double the 1 year warranty that Apple gives. More details about the Directive here, and a legal case about it in Belgium here. I’d purchased my phone direct from Apple, that’s why I needed to go to them for the replacement. If I had the phone on a contract from O2 or Vodafone or whoever, I would have had to do all of this via the mobile phone company instead.

Anyway, the guy in the Geneva store said that I better phone Apple’s main European call centre in Ireland and see what they say, as Geneva could not make a judgment on the applicability of EU law. So back at my hotel I called the call centre in Ireland. It took 30 minutes on the phone, and my call was referred to three different staff. My line was clear and persistent:

  • The fault with the power button is well known
  • The phone was purchased in the EU (shipped from Ireland to a UK address)
  • That hence EU law should apply, and I should be entitled to a new phone even though I was beyond Apple’s own 12 month warranty

The most senior person I spoke to was most amenable. Rather than ask about the phone directly, he asked about my history as a purchaser of Apple products. I’ve only had Apple computers since 1994, and said so. He even asked for the serial number of my MacBook Pro to check I was telling the truth – giving this reassured him that I was. He then said that, in this case, they would be willing to make an exception… So he put a note on my record with Apple, and said I could go to any Apple Store to get a replacement.

So off I went back to the Geneva store to collect my replacement phone. “Comment est-ce que vous avez réussi à obtenir cela?” [How did you get that?] the guy there asked me. “Enfin, la raison que je suis à Genève aujourd’hui est pour donner des cours en politique de l’UE… donc je connais mes droits comme consommateur en droit européen!” [The reason I'm in Geneva today is to give courses in the politics of the EU… so I know my rights as a consumer under European law!] So I handed in the old phone, received the new one from the store, and off I went. Mission accomplished.

This was originally posted on Jon's blog, and has been reposted here with permission.

Photograph: bredgur/flickr, CC-BY-SA

Blogger on EU affairs.

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.