The UK is to apply to stay in the European standards system for industry products and services after Brexit, following warnings from business that creating British-only benchmarks would be “an isolationist move” that would pile costs on to companies.
Business secretary Greg Clark has backed moves to keep the UK as a full member of European standard setting bodies, shrugging off suggestions from trade secretary Liam Fox that Britain should strike out on an independent course.
European standards set benchmarks for the safety and quality of products and services across multiple sectors — ranging from energy and healthcare to transport — to protect consumers and facilitate cross-border trade.
Industry figures claimed Mr Fox feared that if the UK continued to adhere to European standards after Brexit, it could make it harder to strike third country trade deals, notably with the US. Mr Fox declined to comment.
Mr Clark has thrown his weight behind business leaders who have lobbied for months against a new “British-only” approach. They said such a move would bring “fragmentation, cost and confusion to British industry and consumers post-Brexit”.
Last week Mr Clark wrote to Scott Steedman, director of the British Standards Institution, the UK body responsible for developing standards, urging him to “take the steps you feel are necessary” to maintain national influence in the setting of European and international benchmarks.
His letter, dated June 8, gives government approval to a bid to change the statutes of European standards organisations, which specify that members must come from the EU or the European Free Trade Association — which consists of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland — or are likely to join those blocs.
Mr Clark expects approval to be forthcoming — UK industry experts and the BSI play a key role in setting European standards, which then often become the basis of international norms.
Last month 34 industry figures representing a wide range of industries wrote to Mr Clark to urge him to back the proposal. “It will help post-Brexit global Britain to continue to trade in Europe and internationally,” they wrote.
“It will support the close working relationships that both the UK and the EU are looking for, with businesses receiving the certainty they need and consumers achieving the high levels of protection they demand.”
European standards are drawn up by CEN and CENELEC, which are independent associations and not EU agencies.
They provide a single model, whereby each European standard is adopted identically as a national norm.
David Bell, director of standards policy at the BSI, said in Brussels last month that British business did not want to follow two different standards models, “one track national, one track European”.
Speaking at the Small Business Standards conference, he said: “Ministers understand that Brexit is going to cost a lot of money and this is one area where we can make some savings.”
The majority of European standards are initiated by business, with about 30 per cent mandated by the European Commission under EU legislation, according to CEN and CENELEC. Standards are voluntary, although EU laws and regulations may make compliance with them compulsory.