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Better standards to enhance European competitiveness

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By outlining clear requirements for goods and services, standards help protect consumers, create new and larger markets and boost innovation. The European Commission has put forward proposals to modernise the European standardisation system to meet the challenges of our ever faster changing world, thus contributing to the objectives of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

Whether at work or at play, standards are all around us: in our homes, in our workplaces and even on the routes in between. For example, most of the electrical appliances in the home conform to one European standard (EN) or another, as do the tiles or other types of flooring you walk on and the lock which secures your front door. At the office, everything from your desktop computer and photocopier to the chair you sit on or the sprinkler system above your head is covered by European standards.

Standards keep Europeans safe and ensure that the quality of the products they use is high. They also enhance the competitiveness of European industry by facilitating innovation and laying down common requirements upon which a particular product market can be built and a level playing field can be ensured.

For example, the world-leading GSM standard, which was developed in Europe but is used by over 2 billion phone subscribers around the world, placed the EU’s mobile phone manufacturers and content creators in pole position in this massive global market. The virtuous cycle of innovation and competition it generated also served consumers by providing them with top-quality products and services and constantly falling prices.

Standards are not only good for consumers and industry, but they can also be beneficial to the environment. For example, the recent standards for a universal phone charger, in addition to the convenience it will afford millions of mobile phone users by allowing them to use their charger on any phone, will cut waste – and cost – by enabling manufacturers to sell devices and chargers separately.

Striving for harmony

For standards to be useful and usable, they cannot simply be dictated from on high by regulators. Besides, given the length and breadth of products and services available in the EU’s single market and the rapid, relentless rate of innovation, regulatory bodies lack the resources and technical know-how to develop the necessary standards in a timely and efficient fashion.

For that reason, for the past quarter of a century, the EU has exploited, within technical harmonisation, voluntary European standards developed by the European standardisation organisations (CEN, CENELEC and ETSI) in co-operation with all relevant stakeholders. The first success story where voluntary European standards have a key role in harmonisation was guided by the so-called 'New Approach' (NA), which applied an innovative and voluntary approach to standards supporting EU legislation.

Within the context of NA, European legislators drafted legislation in which they defined the essential requirements, how these were to be assessed for conformity, and whether a CE marking was required. European standardisation organisations then drew up the voluntary technical specifications, also known as ‘harmonised standards’, which provided the most direct way to comply with such essential requirements.

Since 2010, the ‘New Legislative Framework’ has replaced and updated the NA with a broad package of measures which seek to remove the remaining obstacles to the free circulation of goods in the single market.

Speed is of the essence

Despite the efficiency and responsiveness of the current system, it can still take a significant period of time before new European standards see the light of day – indeed, the required lead time can be too high for a number of highly innovative sectors, which results in standards lagging behind market realities. This can result in a certain reluctance to engage in European standard setting in some sectors.

In June 2011, the European Commission adopted a package of proposalspdf aimed at tackling these issues. “To be successful, Europe needs to react to the challenge of rapid innovation, sustainability, convergence of technologies, and fierce global competition,” explains Choose translations of the previous link  European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani who is in charge of industry and entrepreneurship. “A dynamic European standardisation system is essential to spur quality and innovation and to strengthen Europe’s role as a global economic player.”

The proposed set of measures comes in the context of the Europe 2020 strategy. For instance, the flagship ‘Industrial policy for the globalisation era’ emphasises that European standards need to be highly responsive to rapidly changing circumstances for them to be able to support Europe’s global competitiveness and thus to meet the needs of both industry and public authorities.

Another Europe 2020 flagship, the ‘Digital agenda for Europe’ underscores the importance of information and communication technology (ICT) standards in ensuring interoperability, while the ‘Resource-efficient Europe’ initiative highlights the crucial role of standards in encouraging eco-innovation.

For its part, the Innovation Union (IU) flagship initiative identifies areas where the current approach to setting standards needs to be modernised: “The rapid shortening of innovation cycles and the convergence of technologies across the boundaries of the three European standardisation organisations (CEN, CENELEC and ETSI) are a particular challenge.”

One of the mechanisms the IU foresees to promote a more effective standardisation process is what it calls European Innovation Partnerships which seek to mobilise stakeholders to work together towards well-defined goals in areas which combine tackling societal challenges with boosting European competitiveness. In addition to stepping up R&D efforts, coordinating investments and promoting demand, these partnerships also aim to speed up the standard-setting process. One pilot partnership is currently being launched which will focus on active and healthy ageing.

In its conclusions on the Innovation Union, the European Council requested, in February 2011, that the European Commission “make proposals to accelerate, simplify and modernise standardisation procedures, notably to allow standards developed by industry to be turned into European standards”.

Market-driven and inclusive standards

The proposal put forward by the European Commission includes both legislative and non-legislative measures focusing on a number of key areas: boosting industrial competitiveness and addressing key societal challenges through standards; developing a more inclusive standard-setting process; developing effective standards for the service sector; creating flexible and robust standards for the ICT sector; bolstering the EU’s global competitiveness through standards; as well as monitoring progress and crystallising a post-2020 vision.

In order to enable European enterprises to access foreign markets and establish business partnerships around the globe, the European Commission intends to push for the development of international standards in sectors where the EU is a global leader. Furthermore, although there are plentiful standards for goods, few exist for services at the European level, and most are created at the national level, which risks leading to fragmentation in the EU market. To address this, the European Commission plans to pursue a market-driven approach to setting standards for services in the context of the single market for services.

The European Commission will also develop a light and rapid approach to facilitate the use of the increasingly important global ICT standards, such as those underpinning the internet, in public procurement.In keeping with the aim of the Digital Agenda, a system will be established to incorporate the most relevant global ICT standards into public procurement activities so as to encourage freer competition in the supply of interoperable ICT solutions to the public sector.

To speed up the creation and adoption of European standards, the European Commission will step up its co-operation with the European standardisation organisations. In addition, to make the standard-setting process more inclusive and responsive to the needs of the various stakeholders, the European Commission aims to involve more closely in it those who are most affected by standards, including consumers, small and medium-sized enterprises and civil society.

Around 26 % of European standards have been developed after specific standardisation requests ("mandates") of the European Commission and those standards directly support EU legislation or policies. The European Commission will guide its mandating activities through an annual European standardisation work programme which will identify the standards it intends to request from the European standardisation organisations.

World Standards Day

The International Organisation for Standardisation, ISO , is organising, together with its electrotechnical and telecommunication counterparts IEC and ITU, the annual World Standards Day on 14 October, the date on which the UN established ISO in 1946.

This year’s event will have as its theme the role of international standards in creating confidence in globally traded goods and services, a phenomenon which has become even more crucial in light of the recent global financial and economic crises.

Since 2003 the European Commission hosts an annual open event to mark this World Standards Day. This year's conference, organised by DG Enterprise and Industry, will have as its themeCompetitiveness through standardisation. The conference, to be opened by European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani, will also feature three panel debates:

‘How standardisation supports Intelligent Transport System (ITS)’
‘Standards as a tool for Security Industrial Policy’ and
‘Standardisation for interoperability and competitiveness in Space’.

Ensuring the highest level of protection for children

Toys are a vital component of every childhood: not only do children have fun with them, but they also learn and develop through playing. And when it comes to their children’s well-being and welfare, Europeans like to play it safe. For that reason, the EU has a wide range of robust and effective standards for toys which both protect children and promote competition and innovation in the €14-billion toy sector.

To keep up with the changing reality of the toy market, a new EU Toys Safety Directive was adopted in 2009 to take into account emerging safety issues, such as the use of certain chemical substances, to update labelling rules and to make the means of enforcing rules more coherent.

In less than two years, the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) has developed a set of standards that take into account the full provisions of the 2009 Toys Safety Directive.

The sky’s the limit on the road to standards

The vehicles on Europe’s roads conform to various standards, including safety, environmental and performance standards. These standards not only enhance confidence in the safety and road-worthiness of vehicles, but they also boost innovation and create a single European market for automobiles.

In fact, European standards will help electric cars to progress from being a relative novelty to becoming a real alternative to petrol-driven vehicles. For example, charging electric vehicles is one of the major stumbling blocks in the way of electric cars fulfilling their potential. The European standardisation organisations are currently working to develop a standard common charger for electric vehicles Choose translations of the previous link .

Moreover, the path to standardisation in the transport sector does not end down on the ground – it also covers the sky above. Standards play a critical role in the EU’s massive aviation sector, which transports nearly 800 million passengers a year. Efforts are currently under way to harmonise standards for aviation equipment and air traffic management to ensure that the EU really does possess a ‘single European sky’.


‘Standardisation’ Unit,
Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry

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