This paper analyses the ways in which the Unfair Contract Terms and Unfair Commercial Practices Directives try to steer a path between imposing a common European standard and allowing national variation. The open wording of the norms and safeguard clauses in both directives allows room for their flexible application. The differentiated role between the Court of Justice, as the interpreter of European law, and the national courts, as the party that applies it, provides a release valve to prevent any direct clashes and allows a subtle way for national perspectives to be reflected.

The analysis finds that, irrespective of the underlying level of harmonisation, and with the backing of the European legislator’s intention of ensuring a high level of consumer protection, the CJEU is gradually painting the average European consumer with more realistic features. Here, the case law of the CJEU fulfils a bridging function between the labelling requirements in the Foodstuff Regulation, the transparency requirements in the Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the informed decision requirements in the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. In these three domains the CJEU recognises that the level of customer attention may be suboptimal, even in the presence of comprehensive and correct information.

The CJEU’s approach contributes to more convergence in consumer protection throughout the EU. Yet, in terms of legitimacy, it must be noted that in all cases the CJEU has maintained a clear distinction between interpretation and application. The particular constitutional legal order in which the CJEU operates only allows for a process whereby the contours of a more coherent European consumer protection policy are gradually revealed. In the absence of sufficient legislative guidance at the European and national levels, national courts may be increasingly informed by the case law of the CJEU in an effort to establish clearly desirable common expectations. Those who believe that, in practice, uniformity can be achieved overnight by simply adopting a common maximum norm appear over-optimistic.

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