Thursday, September 23, 2010

Standards standards everywhere...

I'm just spent an interesting couple of days at one of CEN/CENELEC's StandarDays. This is basically one of their awareness-raising events to introduce people from all backgrounds to the european standards system and standards in general. And when I say all backgrounds I mean it - from the Blind Dog Society in the UK to the standards institute in Germany and a couple of PhD students. And me.

My interest, which wasn't particularly addressed, related more to how firms from developing countries can export into the EU and the kind of system they are exporting into. The high compliance costs are generally recognised but were somewhat unclear to me. I was also unclear what the EU view was on all this. I may still be unclear but I did pick up a few interesting points...

Something which was constantly mentioned was that standards are "voluntary" and depend on the request and desire from "stakeholder".

Starting with the voluntary aspect, this is of course true in principal. You are not generally required to conform with a standard. BUT, if you don't comply you basically won't find a market. Especially if you are an exporter from outside the EU, with buyers demanding that you comply... So at base, standards are not really voluntary. That is not to say that they are not useful, but in certain instances risk being far more protectionist than seemed to be recognised by CEN.

The term "stakeholders", so ubiquitous in the development discourse, is also vague when discussing standards. Stakeholders were taken to be a fairly homogeneous bunch who all wanted this standard, with anyone wanting to participate allowed to. Firstly, this ignores that the private sector is hugely hetereogeneous even within a similar sector and geographical area. And of course, SMEs are free and encouraged to attend technical groups on standards etc, but how many really can? Responses to my questions suggested that there was not much concern for a risk of protectionism given the open access to firms and society to participate in debates. However it does still lead to an interesting question in terms of the degree to which large firms in the EU act against their smaller counterparts, and against outsiders... One person from the UK Federation of Small Businesses claimed to have statistics showing that SME participation in standard design was shockingly low.

Apart from that, the issue of firms imposing standards on their suppliers reminded me of VAT, where the chain effect means that all firms are eventually encouraged to charge VAT to offset what they pay - if someone requires standards from me, presumably I will demand it also and so on.... So, voluntary you say?

As is often the case in these things, i think it just boils down to a question of balance....

No comments:

Post a Comment