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

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Theresa May's Article 50 letter fires the Brexit starting gun

But as well as handing over a letter, Theresa May hands over control of the process. 

So the starting gun will be fired, and the Brexit process will begin. The delivery of the letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk is a highly symbolic moment. It is also, crucially, the moment when the Prime Minister loses control of the process.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Brexit process to date has been the remarkable degree of control exercised over it by Downing Street. Brexit means Brexit, declared the Prime Minister, and since that day it has been her who has defined what precisely it does mean. After a quarter century of bitter division over Europe, culminating in a referendum where the Parliamentary party was split down the middle, she has managed to unite the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party for a “hard Brexit” that very few claimed to support a year ago.  As an impotent opposition and ineffective Tory opponents watched on, she has made it clear from the first that Britain will leave the single market and, almost certainly, the customs union. Rumours from Whitehall suggest that, whatever the concerns or doubts of line departments, these have been ignored or over-ruled.

Now, however, the Prime Minister has lost control of the process. Inevitably, given the relative strength of the parties’ negotiating positions, both the agenda and outcome of the talks will be determined largely by our European partners. It is of course true that they have an interest in preserving trade with us, as do we with them; nor do they have any interest, either economic or political, in “punishing” us for the sake of it. That being said, our interests and theirs are far from aligned. They have other priorities. Not allowing cherry picking among EU rules is one. Ensuring Britain pays its fair share is another.

And, while it is in neither side’s interest for the talks to collapse, we have considerably more to lose. May’s claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” may play well with the Daily Express, but is has not gone down well with UK business. As the economics professor Jonathan Portes sets out here, the consequences of “no deal” would go far beyond the mere imposition of tariffs; the economic impacts would be significant for other EU countries, and very  severe indeed for the UK.  There are increasing signs that ministers are, belatedly, appreciating the risks, and are anxious to avoid such an outcome.

So both sides want a deal – and the UK, at least, needs one. But several hurdles stand in the way. In the first place, there is the vexed question of money. Britain, as our partners are concerned, has outstanding liabilities that must be paid. The British government may accept some of these, but is sure to quibble about the sums. Discussions of money are never easy in the EU, and the task of figuring out what a net contributor to the budget might owe at a time when discussions over the new 5 year funding programme are about to start will be no exception.  Nevertheless, if it were simply left to the civil servants, no doubt an acceptable compromise would be reached. The bigger  issue  is whether Mrs May  is prepared to take on some of her own backbenchers – and, more importantly, sections of the UK press – to sell a deal that will inevitably mean that the UK writes a sizeable cheque.

Second, there is the question of how to ensure the "frictionless" trade of which the Prime Minister has spoken. This makes eminent sense on one level – why make trade more difficult with the partner that buys 44 per cent of our exports? On another, though, it is hard to see how she can deliver.

I for one simply lack the imagination to see how we can be sufficiently out of the customs union to allow us to sign our own trade deals, while sufficiently in it to avoid customs checks and tariffs. For another, it is difficult to foresee conditions under which the EU would allow us to enjoy any of the benefits of the single market – whereby states accept each other’s rules and standards – without the oversight provided by the European Court of Justice.

And finally, since all parties now seem to accept that the prospects of concluding an “ambitious and comprensive” trade deal by March 2019 are vanishingly, there is the question of what happens then. The government has talked about an “implementation phase”; but how do you have an “implementation phase” when you do not know exactly what you are trying to implement?

It could just be me. I may simply not have fathomed the subtle devices that might allow these circles to be squared. But it does seem clear to me that doing so would be far from straightforward.

And then, of course, whatever is negotiated needs to be approved. Forget for a moment the continent, where there has probably never been a worse time to try to get a free trade deal approved by 27 European parliaments. The Prime Minister will almost certainly have parliamentary problems here in the UK.

The Labour party has adopted a position whereby they will vote against any deal that does not provide the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union,” to quote Keir Starmer. If the other member states are to be believed, the full benefits of membership are, and will be, only available to members, so this is will simply not be the case.

Labour, then, will probably end up voting against the bill. What Tories opposed to either Brexit or to leaving the single market might then do is anyone’s guess. It may be that, by autumn of 2018, they feel sufficiently empowered  - either because of a shift in public opinion, or because of indications of falling economic confidence, or, conceivably, because of declining faith in the Prime Minster – to make common cause with the opposition.

Under such circumstances, May might face the real possibility of defeat in Parliament. Which in turn poses the question as to why she would she risk putting a deal that might be rejected to a vote?

It seems to me that she would have very little incentive to do so. If she cannot get the kind of deal that seems, on the surface, impossible to get anyway, surely better, from her point of view to simply walk away? Blaming the Europeans for failure would be all to easy. And holding a snap election on a patriotic ticket and opposed by the current Labour party would guarantee a healthy majority.

Two years is a long time in politics. And much that is unexpected will doubtless transpire during the negotiations to come. Do not, however, discount the possibility that it might all go wrong. 

Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London.