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06 June 2011

EU-wide standards: more controls on the economy?

Standards are in a complex relation with regulation in that they appear less unilateral, less legal binding form of constraint on economic operators, while achieving very similar policy goals. An earlier post pointed at the link, with stakeholders showing that they remain vigilant on the use of this tool to improve the performance of markets without creating undue new burdens.
The recent Single Market Act places new emphasis on this policy tool: "Boosting the free movement of services by facilitating the definition of services standards at European level" is one of the 12 "key actions."
On 1 June, the Commission approved a Communication on a strategic vision for European standards - COM(2011)311 and a related draft regulation. The EC webpage on standardisation policy gives a brief history since a 2004 communication, and sums up the news as follows:  "More Standards for Europe and faster: this is the main objective of a series of measures that the European Commission proposed on 1 June 2011. Standards are sets of voluntary technical and quality criteria for products, services and production processes. Nobody is obliged to use or apply them but they help businesses in working together which ultimately saves money for the consumer.
See also the official press release and a guide published by the EC In its communications, the EC stresses the link between standardisation and  better regulation policies.
An Euractiv article gives an overview of the topic in the light of this announcement, including the industry's concerns that  the expanded powers of the Commission may lead to a wave of new regulatory constraints.
There is no doubt that standards can be viewed as softer substitutes or "alternatives" to regulation, provided that their adoption process fully achieves the goals of smoother markets and geater economic competitiveness. (see also previous post on standardisation.)

The most important steps proposed by the Commission to strengthen the system of standard-setting in Europe are:
  • The enhancement of its cooperation with the leading standardisation organisations in Europe (i.e. CEN, CENELEC and ETSI);
  • The drafting of European standards with the help of organisations representing those most affected, or most concerned – consumers, small businesses (SMEs), environmental and social organisations;
  • The recognition of Global ICT standards that will play a more prominent role in the EU;
  • The increase of the number of European standards for services if there is a demand from business."

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