Despite their growing strategic importance worldwide, standards and standardisation are not well integrated into Europe’s journey to strategic autonomy. The geopolitics of new technologies and advanced manufacturing require Europe to ensure the efficient and effective functioning of its standardisation system. It must be a rule-maker and not a rule-taker of international rules and standards – every European standard adopted at the international level brings a competitive advantage to European businesses. As the pace of digitalisation accelerates, European standards are essential to ensuring that Europe’s digital space remains safe, secure and cyber-proof.
As Europe aims for greater strategic autonomy and resilience in a post-COVID-19 world, it cannot afford to forget standards, a key pillar of its global influence in the past. Although often forgotten, standards are the ‘invisible glue’ holding many economic and societal processes together. Within Europe, they have become a fundamental pillar of the Single Market, removing barriers to trade and facilitating cross-border flows of goods and services. Standards are an indispensable tool for raising product safety and environmental performance. They can drive innovation, competitiveness, sustainability and consumer protection. European standards have also played a crucial role in Europe’s efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, the rapid development of standards boosted the production of desperately needed medical supplies, including for medical devices and personal protective equipment, in Europe. Crucially, European standards should also play a key role in ensuring Europe’s post-COVID-19 recovery. Standards should be prioritised at the EU level, and the issues faced by the European standardisation system fixed.
At the international level, standards are increasingly becoming a matter of geopolitical competition. Europe’s competitors and partners already recognise the geopolitical potential of standards, play a more active role in standard-setting, and develop strategies that promote technological and industrial interests through standards. In recent years, standards have moved to the very centre of global technological and industrial competition. Countries like China and the US have adopted more strategic approaches for developing and promoting their respective standards within highly innovative technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of things (IoT) or advanced manufacturing. The need to set standards that promote national industry is evident in strategies like China’s Made in China 2025 strategy and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), or the US’ America First Policy.
Against this backdrop, political leadership must recognise the strategic importance of Europe remaining a global standard-setter. While the EU legal framework and partnership structures have many world-leading qualities, the adoption of EU standards has been in decline since 2018. The slow approval of harmonised standards is weakening the coherence of the Single Market. It is also sapping the competitiveness of the EU’s digital players, where speed to market is critical. The series of difficulties European standardisation is confronted with must be addressed urgently if Europe is to reach its new strategic objectives, especially the European Green Deal, the EU Digital Strategy, and the New Industrial Strategy. A new trusted partnership between the EU, industry and the European Standardisation Organisations should be developed. It must determine clear objectives for the timely delivery of standards, reform governance and strengthen the inclusive public-private partnership that is the engine room of standards-making.
The EU has a strong basis for global standards leadership. It has a mature legislative framework, nurturing inclusive and efficient practices in producing effective and high-quality standards. It has engaged active partners from the private sector. It has a standards community prepared to invest resources in joint activities to promote the use of standards and improve all aspects of the system. In the strategically vital digital domain, it has a long-standing stakeholder partnership shaping the standards agenda. The European standardisation system, however, continues to be faced with a series of challenges. If Europe could fix its standardisation system, it would have all it would need to retake global leadership in standard-setting. Europe must remain a global standard-setter that is on par with China and the US.
‘Europe as a Global Standard-Setter: The Strategic Importance of European Standardization’ – Discussion Paper by Malcolm Harbour and Johan Bjerkem – European Policy Centre / EPC.