Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng
Preparing for Brexit means finding solutions to many issues, not least in engineering, that will arise from severing the UK’s close links with the EU’s institutions and processes. Brexit could mean many things, so it is important to provide an interpretation of what it could mean that helps to secure the best possible outcome for the UK from the EU negotiations.
At a policy level, the Royal Academy of Engineering, on behalf of Engineering the Future, an alliance of the 38 professional engineering organisations, is coordinating advice on Brexit for government, including the question of standards. The Construction and Infrastructure Brexit Group, led by Sir John Armitt CBE FREng, is also preparing detailed statements on codes and standards alongside other issues such as skills, research, procurement and investment.
In my role at BSI (British Standards Institution), responsible for the UK’s national standards body, we are concerned over what Brexit will mean for the UK’s use of the industry standards system that underpins the single market. Over the past few decades, the UK has become a global leader in the creation and adoption of international and European standards. These standards are often drafted by UK industry experts and certainly influenced through UK involvement. Today, more than 95% of the industry standards that are adopted as British Standards are international or European. Adoption of international standards and the withdrawal of conflicting national standards has created a simple and efficient market structure across the UK, where engineering companies need only look to one single standard on any given issue.
With the right codes and standards, engineering companies can request or supply products or services that meet pre-agreed requirements, for example, in terms of a technical specification, a business process or simply guidance. In engineering, it is increasingly common to rely on consensus-based international standards, which simplifies compliance, enables reciprocal market access and accelerates the use of new technologies and processes.
Economic research carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research in 2015, The Economic Contribution of Standards to the UK Economy, showed that the most productive sectors (aerospace and automotive) are those that make best use of standards. As the UK seeks new trading relationships around the world, there is a great opportunity for the UK engineering sector to shape its own agenda through the use of codes and standards that drive activity towards British technologies and business practice.
The single market in Europe employs this model. Over time, the industry-led European standards system has reduced the number of voluntary standards that industry might need to use in business across the 33 individual member countries from around 160,000 to just 19,000. It is the most sophisticated market structure in the world. The system is managed by its members, separately from the EU, and is supported by tens of thousands of industry and societal experts.
Most European standards are developed by industry for its own purposes. However, the EU also uses the European standards system to support a range of regulatory requirements by inviting industry experts, through the national members, to propose or develop voluntary standards on particular topics,. The engineering sector depends on these standards for the delivery of its products and services across the domestic, European and international markets.
Post Brexit, UK industry will continue to use these internationally recognised European standards for business. One of the simplest means of securing market access across Europe for the UK is through agreement on non-tariff barriers, particularly standards. In this case, it is likely that engineering experts in the UK will continue to participate in the European standards system, where they can influence the standards their industries need to use – a win-win for engineering.
The commitment by UK experts to the development and implementation of international and European standards has brought huge advantage to the UK’s economy, building a platform for investment, trade and innovation. The UK is seen as a thought leader in shaping the specifications, codes and guidance on engineering practices and new technologies used throughout Europe and around the world. In the Brexit negotiations, defining the role of standards will be central to achieving a positive outcome for the engineering sector.
Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng