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"Standards are top priority“

Kerstin Jorna heads the European Commission's Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (GROW). The influence of EU member states on international standardisation is an important concern for her. She would like to see more experts from the member states represented on international committees.


When the importance of technical standards is explained, a classic that is probably on almost every desk right in front of us often has to be used: the ‘DIN A4 sheet’. Paper formats were defined as early as 1922, back then under the number ‘DIN 476’. Today, however, standards are largely international and so the standard format for our paperwork has also been given a new number, ‘DIN EN ISO 216’. 

Anyone can easily imagine what would happen without a standard for paper. The result would be a huge chaos. However, standards are also indispensable in countless other areas of life, as they represent a common technical language for almost all products, which promotes global trade, ensures quality, protects the environment and society and improves efficiency. Standards are also the basis for innovation. Even the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter said that only with the help of standards can innovations become product novelties that also prevail on the market. Standardisation is a prerequisite for scaling in the market. 

The industry owes its good access to global markets to the strong role that Germany has traditionally played in standardisation. If other countries were to set the standards, the result would be expensive adaptations to these standards. The organisation of supply chains would also become more complex. In Germany, the DKE and the German Institute for Standardisation (DIN) are responsible for technical standards. In the vast majority of cases - namely 93 per cent - the electrotechnical standards have a European or international background. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) have therefore long been of increasing importance. 

Countries such as China have recognised the importance of participating in standardisation bodies. In the EU, too, there is a growing awareness of the great geostrategic importance of the topic. In this interview, Kerstin Jorna, Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs (GROW), comments on current issues relating to standardisation and the EU's plans.

I have to think about standardisation as early as the research and development stage. Because if you set the standards, you also have the market. And if you have the market, it's easier to finance your investments.

Ms Jorna, we are just before the next European elections. How would you summarise the past legislative period? 

We had to overcome major, unforeseeable challenges, particularly the Covid crisis. It has put the European single market to a difficult test. But it has shown incredible strength. Vaccines are a good example. Instead of Member States bidding against each other and looking for individual solutions, we have managed to select, authorise and ultimately purchase the right vaccines together. With a fantastic industry council in Europe, we were not only able to produce enough vaccine for the citizens of Europe, but also to supply the whole world. Five years ago, I would not have thought this enormous solidarity possible.
At the same time, global competition has become increasingly fierce. The EU's share of global gross domestic product is continuously decreasing. 

What have you achieved to strengthen European competitiveness?

We have created a solid legal framework in order to achieve the EU's climate targets. This is an important basis for companies to be able to invest. After the Covid crisis and the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, we also had to recognise how vulnerable our value chains are. In response, we created a raw materials law for the internal market. We have also created internal market regulations to become less dependent on fossil raw materials. We are enabling shorter authorisation procedures so that new and clean technologies can be used more quickly. We have also ensured that new academies are built for more skilled workers. 

What role does standardisation play in European competitiveness?

I became very involved with standards about ten years ago and have become a total fan of them. I believe that we have a standardisation system in Europe that is very innovation-friendly and fast. And what we have also achieved over the past five years in the Directorate-General: Standards are now a top priority. This is because they are extremely important right now against the backdrop of decarbonisation. We in Europe will probably be the first hydrogen economy in the world. It is clear that we will then also have to set standards for safety or purity, for example. 

Will we also manage to set global standards for the hydrogen economy?

Of course we have the global market in mind and are working on global standards. Our system is already very closely coordinated with international standardisation organisations. Europe has always played a leading role in electrotechnical and mechanical engineering. But now we are also looking at new fields: Internet of Things, cyber security and renewable energies, for example. China now also has a standardisation strategy and is getting involved. But we are well positioned and strategically well on our way. 

The EU must develop common priorities and speak with one voice. If everyone speaks for themselves, no one will notice.

Kerstin Jorna

Can you give an example?

Yes, in the High-Level Forum on European Standardisation, for example, we discussed the question of which grids we need for renewable energies. The results were incorporated into the corresponding plans at the end of last year. And we will probably have standards that we can promote at international level by the end of 2024. It can happen very quickly, especially if we handle it strategically.

Nevertheless, China is making great efforts to enforce more of its own standards at international level. Isn't that a threat to Europe's competitiveness?

Let's put it this way: we have always been ahead in international standardisation and now we have to become even better and stand together even more at European level. And that is what we are now doing with the High-Level Forum. For me, China's ambitions are not the real problem. I see it more as a challenge. 

And what is the real problem?

I see a problem in the fact that companies do not have enough experts for standardisation. In some companies, deserving employees are assigned to the standardisation of existing products. This is the wrong way round. I actually have to think about standardisation as early as the research and development stage. Because whoever sets the standards also has the market. And if you have the market, it's easier to finance your investments. 

Speaking of the lack of experts: The ZVEI has proposed extending the research tax allowance to the area of standardisation. What do you think of this proposal?

It is important to take greater account of the role of standardisation when we assess the social value and impact of investments in research and innovation projects. We are already doing this - as part of the EU budget for research can and does flow into standardisation work. Because standardisation is like a patent: you have to try to get it as quickly as possible. 

How do you view the Common Specifications that are being adopted at European level? Does it not jeopardise the internationalisation of standards if the EU implements its own specifications?

No, common specifications are like the metro ticket in your gym shorts. I only take it with me to be on the safe side, in case I can't run back for some reason. International standards have absolute priority for us. 

How can Europe remain relevant in international standardisation bodies in the future?

Above all, the EU must develop common priorities and speak with one voice. If everyone speaks for themselves, no one will notice.


Text Michael Gneuss | Photography DG GROW


This article is part of the english issue 1.2024 published on 8 May 2024.

Published in issue 1.2024

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