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Although rarely mentioned, EU standards will be crucial for the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Innovation, competitiveness and sustainability are threaded through most policy prescriptions for EU recovery and regeneration. Standards are rarely mentioned, yet they are a crucial enabler for the robust and resilient economy that will emerge from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Standards underpin the effectiveness of the Single Market and enhance the safety and environmental performance of products. Global standards are critical for a secure and open internet, and all aspects of fixed and mobile electronic communication.
Boosting the EU’s competitive advantage
Deploying EU standards across the whole of the Single Market confers a major competitive advantage. Manufacturers of goods and providers of services are guaranteed market access by producing or delivering one set of standards.
The strategic importance of European standards for the 21st century was clearly set out in the 2016 Commission communication:
“From goods to services and information and communication technologies (ICT), standards have proven to be a flexible way of raising quality and safety, improving transparency and interoperability, reducing costs and opening up markets for businesses, especially [small and medium-sized enterprises]. Standards benefit consumers, companies and society at large.”
The global reach of standards-making is rapidly expanding, driven by digital connectivity. Global bodies are already adopting many digital and internet operating standards. Online tools help make international standards-making efficient. Billions of device users continually exploit interoperable standards in their personal and working lives. Global performance standards address many pressing societal challenges, such as global warming and air and marine pollution.
Technological sovereignty has emerged as a desirable political goal to enhance the EU’s competitiveness. In practice, sovereignty requires influence over standards. The EU must promote technology leadership through deeper engagement in global standards-making. Digital innovation has moved into most sectors, offering new opportunities for Europe. For example, exploiting the massive potential of 5G connectivity means having new platforms that manage transport, manufacturing, health and a host of other applications.
A strategic public-private partnership
Standards-making touches the policy mainstream lightly because it is led and resourced by market operators. They hold deep technical and operational knowledge that must be embedded into effective standards. They convene the meetings, negotiate the outcomes and carry the costs. Engaging in standards is a substantial investment by market participants, but standards know-how helps secure their future. Standards-making is an unheralded example of effective public-private partnerships.
While their evolution is discussed lightly, standards can have huge impacts on policy outcomes. The EU already recognises their importance, and Europe has implemented a unique standardisation system. The Green Deal strategy notes, “As the world’s largest single market, the EU can set standards that apply across global value chains”.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of EU standards for personal protection equipment and medical devices like ventilators. The standards-makers responded by making standards accessible and encouraging new market providers to boost the supply of safe and effective products. The Commission’s extensive 2020 work programme for European standardisation is clearly aligned with priority dossiers, from climate change to artificial intelligence.
A regulatory framework facing challenges
Since it entered into force in 2013, Regulation 1025/2012 has established a legal and organisational framework to ensure that EU standards-making operates effectively and inclusively and safeguards the public interest. The 2012 reforms advanced the role of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), consumers, environmental interests and trade unions in the standardisation process. The 2016 Commission communication launched a Joint Initiative on Standardisation (JIS) to render the benefits of standardisation more visible and encourage the engagement of all the stakeholders.
However, far from fulfilling the promise of a 21st century standards regime, EU standards-making has been slowing down. This setback has been precipitated by a 2016 Court of Justice of the EU case (C‑613/14), which concluded that harmonised standards “[form] part of EU law”. It reiterated the Commission’s responsibility for ensuring the integrity and inclusiveness of the standards-making process and the compatibility of a proposed standard with the relevant harmonising legislation.
As an immediate response, the Commission considered it necessary to step up its scrutiny procedures. Assisted by external experts, more detailed reviews of submitted standards proposals were instituted. Liaison with the European Standards Organisations was stepped up, using the impetus of the JIS. However, these extended examinations and the resulting requests for changes inevitably delayed the approval of new standards.
Stakeholder worries became evident. The Commission’s Regulatory Fitness and Performance programme (REFIT) report from September 2017 expressed concern about the backlog of unapproved standards and made recommendations to deal with it. In its November 2018 communication, the Commission committed to reducing the backlog and proposed new consultative procedures.
In October 2019, the 2020 work programme promised a new guidance document that will pay “close attention to the efficiency, inclusiveness and speed of standardisation processes.” It will “take into account the recent jurisprudence and particular conditions required to comply with the European Standardisation Regulation and improve the standardisation process in practice.” This document is yet to be published.
Next Generation standards-making
At recent webinars, representatives of stakeholders have expressed frustration at the continued delays in approving harmonised standards. They point out that their investment in expert time cannot be justified if the intended EU standards are delayed, or late changes are made to draft recommendations. There are fears that, in fast-developing technologies, EU standards could be agreed too late to become adopted widely.
It is clear from the 2020 work programme that the Commission recognises the strategic importance of standards. It emphasises that the effective implementation of the existing EU standardisation rules, reinforced by the cooperation established through the JIS, has the potential to give the EU a competitive advantage. The hardware is in place. The software needs to upgrade to the next generation.
The industry-led and independent nature of the process must be preserved. The public-private partnership – crucial to Europe’s standardisation system – must be strong, open and inclusive. The demands of the Commission for more detailed oversights must be reconciled with available resources, and by even deeper engagement between all standardisation partners. Cooperation can be further enhanced by the exploitation of digital technologies for consultation and diffusion. The progress made in openness and inclusivity since 2012 should be accelerated. Innovative SMEs will play a key role in the COVID-19 economic recovery and enhancing their role in standards-making should be a priority.
An early publication of the draft Commission guidance document would enable all the partners to work on these issues together and agree on the necessary reforms to achieve a strategic and timely development of new standards. An effective, globally leading EU standards regime will be indispensable to the EU’s post-COVID-19 economic revival.