© Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood

A geopolitical race for standards

Standards shape key technologies and innovations. With the increasing globalisation of our markets and the strong ambitions of authoritarian states, the world is facing new economic and political challenges. While China is skilfully using the international rules of standardisation, Europe has long been left behind. The European standardisation strategy could now become a real gamechanger. 

While the EU Commission was busy with the bureaucratic overregulation of the European Standardisation System and the Directorates General preferred to think in silos, other countries such as China seized the opportunity and steadily expanded their influence in international standardisation organisations. As a result, European industry, including the German one, is confronted with new challenges. Europe's standardisation strategy, which came out at the beginning of February 2022, strikes a chord with the times and heralds a new era in the European Standardisation System.

Prioritising European know-how and technological sovereignty in key technologies

The EU Commission has always relied on the know-how of companies in the development and prioritisation of standards. After all, only with economic expertise can technological knowledge become a global benchmark. The EU Commission now wants to commission standardisation mandates in strategically important areas, such as vaccine and medical production, the recycling of critical raw materials, the production of green hydrogen or data interoperability.

Those who want to shape the transformation to a green and digital economy with their own values and technologies must take on a global pioneering role. It remains to be seen whether the new "High-Level Forum" consisting of stakeholders from standardisation, member states, the European Commission and Parliament, for the exchange of information, coordination and strengthening of the European approach at international level, will achieve the desired effect. It would have been preferable to adapt existing formats. New structures carry the risk of redundant processes. In order to be able to deploy capacities at the expert level in a targeted manner, existing national and European forums and formats should be reviewed. The integration of the forum's subgroups into existing structures such as the industry alliances is a positive development.

A major innovation is the "EU excellence hub on standards" under the leadership of a Chief Standardisation Officer. The hub oversees international standardisation projects and provides expertise for the standardisation of key technologies. Another task of the hub can be seen as an affront by standardisation experts. If harmonised European standards are not available within 24 months, the Hub has the task of drawing up "common specifications" to meet the basic requirements of harmonisation legislation. This is justified not least by the fact that processing times are too long. As early as July 2021, European industry submitted concrete proposals for reviewing and adapting the framework conditions for the commissioning, evaluation and citation of harmonised European standards: Joint Industry recommendations for effective Harmonised Standardisation - however, the standardisation strategy does not provide concrete proposals for solutions.

Confident alliance of strong players in standardisation

The European Commission is taking a determined approach to promoting international cooperation and adopting a global perspective. By funding standardisation projects in African countries, important milestones are being set for the Global Gateway. It is important to establish standards as an integral part of European trade strategies. Germany benefits significantly from European-African trade partnerships and relies, for example, on imports, including from the Sahara, to implement its hydrogen strategy.  

Increased reliance on international cooperation and the establishment of concrete measures in the Trade and Technology Council (TTC) are a sensible approach. BDI encourages the Commission and the German government to advocate internationally for the use of international standards in regulations that determine market access. Digital partnerships can increase the impact of standardisation internationally and Europe's digital competitiveness at international level. The Transatlantic Business Initiative (TBI), which identifies the need for digital standardisation, is a first step in this direction. Together with its G7 partners, Germany is also focusing on "stronger international coordination in setting standards" in the cyberspace (Political Priorities of the German G7 Presidency 2022).

However, German industry is following with great concern the targeted international spread of state-driven standards from China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. German industry sees the risk of additional technical trade barriers that make market access in third countries more difficult. In the worst case, this could lead to a decline in demand for German and European technologies and weaken innovation and competitiveness. The Commission still fails to provide a basic outline of a strategy for future dealings with China between the state, industry and standardisation organisations.

Premature standardisation can prevent innovation

Accompanying innovation processes through standardisation is conceivable, but it should also be handled defensively and be strictly geared to the needs of the market. Standardisation can promote or accelerate innovation in a variety of ways, but it can also have the effect of inhibiting innovation - if it is thematically misguided or initiated prematurely. The "standardisation booster", for example, provides the right incentive: it provides financial support for scientists to test the relevance of their results for standardisation.

In summary, the strategy provides new approaches and has the potential to ignite the turbo for European standardisation power. However, fundamental principles must be observed during implementation: Standardisation policy needs economic expertise. In addition, standards are first and foremost a competitive instrument. It therefore needs practical relevance and experience from industry and, in geopolitical competition, project-related cooperation on important topics.