Nov 03, 2015 - 9:00am

Globally Relevant Standards and Conformance Will Support Europe’s Vision for a Digital Single Market

By S. Joe Bhatia

The Digital Single Market is a bold and exciting strategy aimed at boosting the growth of Europe’s digital economy and creating new opportunities for trade and investment.

A critical, but often overlooked, component of this strategy is standardization: the guidelines, standards, and conformance measures that drive manufacturing and services the world over.

Just take a look at your smart phone. There are thousands of standards that have gone into the design, manufacturing, distribution, and operation of that device, from tangibles like its battery and materials to intangibles like its security features and safety. And then there are the testing and inspection measures – also called conformity assessment – that assure that these standards were followed.

Now let’s look beyond your phone, and even beyond the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. Just how important are standards in a broad sense? According to the U.S. Department of Commerce[1], standards and conformity assessment impact more than 80% of all global commodity trade. And when we’re talking about one of the world’s strongest and most vibrant trade relationships, there are a lot of dollars, euros, and jobs on the line on both sides of the Atlantic.

In order for Europe’s vision for a Digital Single Market to truly take hold, their strategy will have to embrace the importance of international standards and global approaches to conformity assessment.

To understand what I mean, put yourself in a manufacturer’s shoes. Now imagine that each of your target markets has its own, “home-grown” market access requirements, including unique standards, regulations, and testing and certification procedures. These can create a complex and sometimes contradictory web of requirements for companies doing business internationally, driving up the costs associated with exports and trade. But international voluntary consensus standards can help to address these problems by giving countries a common base for such requirements.

How do we define an international standard? The World Trade Organization (WTO) offers an answer: the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement Committee Decision[2] states that the global relevance of a standard is determined by how it was developed, not where. More specifically, the Decision states that the development of international standards must rely upon a number of principles, including openness, impartiality, consensus, transparency, and coherence, among others.

In other words, the global relevance of a standard cannot and should not be measured by which organization developed it. The degree to which a standard is used in the global marketplace is the best measure of an international standard.

In the United States, we refer to this concept as the “multiple-path approach.”

The U.S. standardization system is fundamentally built on the needs of the marketplace, where users decide which standards best meet their needs, and in which standards development venues they wish to work. Ultimately, the U.S. standardization community supports the fact that there are multiple paths to global relevance – as articulated by the WTO TBT Agreement Committee Decision – and that it is the marketplace that decides the utility or applicability of any given standard.

For over twenty years, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has convened a cooperative dialogue with the European standards organizations: CEN, CENELEC, and ETSI. Chief among our goals for this dialogue is to affirm our support for increased transatlantic trade, and to further mutual understanding of our respective U.S. and European standardization systems.

Discussion surrounding the definition of an international standard is always an aspect of our agenda for these meetings, and certainly will continue to be as the Digital Single Market moves forward from vision to strategy to implementation.

For that reason, ANSI will strongly advocate for the multiple-path approach in any standards-related discussions surrounding the Digital Single Market.

We will take a similar approach on the conformity assessment side of the dialogue. Consider how much time and money could be saved if conformity assessment providers that test, certify, and accredit could be recognized at a global scale. Products, services, and personnel would cross borders far more easily, without the need for duplicative testing in each market. This would be a huge benefit to companies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The U.S. ICT sector is certainly invested in the European economy, and will want to see that this initiative moves forward with a global, inclusive approach to standards and conformance. But the impact of the digital economy is felt far beyond the ICT sector, and this ambitious strategy has the potential to positively impact both the U.S. and the European Union in a number of ways.

As our colleagues in Europe continue to develop their vision for the Digital Single Market, ANSI and the broader U.S. standardization community stand ready to work collaboratively with CEN, CENELEC, ETSI, and other stakeholders in the European standardization system to bring vision to reality in a way that embraces globally relevant standards and conformance for the benefit of all.


S. Joe Bhatia is the President and CEO of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI is the coordinator of the U.S. standards and conformity assessment system, and is the U.S. member body to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and, via the U.S. National Committee, to the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).  

The views expressed here are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


[1] United States Department of Commerce, Standards and Competitiveness – Coordinating for ResultsWashington, DC May 2004, p1

[2] G/TBT/ 1/REV. 10. “Decision of the Committee on Principles for the Development of International Standards, Guides and Recommendations with Relation to Articles 2, 5 and Annex 3 of the Agreement”