Technical standards

Technical standards

Technical standards

Technical Standards are voluntary: they define benchmarks (technical specifications) with which products comply in order to gain access to a market, while meeting the authorities and consumers' demand for safe and quality products; sometimes they can be an obstacle, hindering market access for companies in developing countries. On the other hand, technical regulations are mandatory and if an imported product does not fulfil the requirements of a technical regulation, it will not be allowed to be put on sale; new or changing technical regulations can generate barriers to trade (Technical Barriers to Trade or TBT).

Just as with Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary Measures, exporting countries in the developing world often lack the productive, institutional assessment and certification capacities required to ensure product compliance, so capacity building efforts at production, conformity assessment and certification levels are a key focus of EU assistance.

The EU also assists exporting countries access to markets by supporting them to comply with the increasing number of voluntary standards, generally established by private bodies.

There are a number of instruments aimed at preventing technical barriers to trade from happening, the main ones being:

  • multilateral trade agreements (primarily the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade) and
  • TBT clauses in bilateral or regional trade agreements;

The WTO TBT Agreement aims to ensure that measures are developed and applied based on common principles, in order to minimise their negative impact on trade. Its goal is to increase transparency, prevent the adoption of protectionist measures, and encourage global harmonisation and convergence of technical standards and mutual recognition of these standards once they are in place.

In its Technical Standards policy the European Union seeks to balance the need to protect the European consumer with the desire to avoid placing insurmountable obstacles to the EU market for companies in developing countries.

With this in mind, the European Commission monitors new legislation proposed by EU countries to ensure that it does not create unjustified technical barriers to trade. This is done with the help of two notification procedures: the 2015/1535 notification procedure at EU level and the TBT notification procedure at WTO level. The aim here is to ensure that Technical Standards are not arbitrary and are put in place to achieve a legitimate policy objective.

Compliance with technical standards is a major determinant of a developing country's export competitiveness, and the creation of a robust Quality Infrastructure (QI) is a way for developing countries to integrate into, and move up, Global Value Chains. Consequently, a key objective of EU assistance in this area is to enhance the capacity of QI institutions in partner countries, allowing them to comply with technical regulations and standards set by their trading partners.

Developing countries often lack the institutional capacity to participate in market access negotiations. This has the result that developed countries often fail to take sufficient account of their interests when adopting technical standards. In addition to capacity building in this area, the EU also represents partner countries’ interests in TBT related international fora, in particular the WTO TBT Committee.

Another key aim of policy is to reduce the difficulty, cost and delay arising from conformity assessment procedures. This can be achieved through mutual recognition of testing and certification, and through accreditation. The use of accredited conformity assessment services can help developing countries avoid expensive re-testing and re-certification, and facilitate access to international markets through Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) and Agreements on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAAs), under which one country accepts the results of conformity assessment tests performed by the other.

It is the EU's goal to increase the transparency of technical regulation processes and to reduce the procedural obstacles faced by its trading partners. This work is conducted collaboratively by various European Commission services. A key tool in achieving transparency is EU's TBT Enquiry Point, which includes information on the TBT notification procedure and on TBT contact points in Member States.