‘Bonkers’ fight over product standards shows old Brexit battles persist

Brexit updates

The splendid thing about sovereignty is that it’s a non-wasting asset. Use it, don’t use it: that’s fine. It’s still there! Someone should really tell the government.

The decision to extend a deadline for companies to certify manufactured products with a new UK quality mark may seem just another bit of Brexit administration. In fact, it is ideology again colliding with reality and losing.

There is no need to be still having this fight. The debate over whether to align with European regulation, or maintain the right and ability to diverge was long ago decided in favour of the latter. 

The cakeists may have maintained that everything was possible. But others, not unreasonably, decided that getting Brexit done meant prioritising sovereignty over economic and business continuity. That was the deal that transpired. 

But those old battle lines have proved stubborn once drawn. The result: another showdown over the high-octane business of quality assurance, which covers everything from mobile phones to fridges to toys, a situation characterised by one industry source as “bonkers”.

The history of the “UK Conformity Assessed” marking, or UKCA, tracks the latter stages of Brexit.

When first announced in February 2019, under the May government, it was a contingency measure. If the UK left without a trade deal it would adopt its own mark but would unilaterally recognise the European CE mark “for some time”. The requirements of the two would be basically the same. 

One year and a new prime minister later, that advice was rescinded. Out had gone notions of alignment and “frictionless” trade. In came new priorities around sovereignty and divergence. There would be a new UKCA regime when transition ended in January 2021.

The brutal reality of, well, time meant that position didn’t last (and the EU, for its obstinate part, refused a mutual recognition agreement of the type it has with other countries such as Canada).

In September 2020, the government announced it would unilaterally recognise the CE mark after all until January 2022. That has this week been extended again to January 2023.

Yet even within the past few weeks, according to industry sources, the message from the government was that this was out of the question: Sovereignty was sacrosanct and that meant severing all links with European regulations of any kind. 

Nevermind that the UK body, the BSI, has remained a member of the European organisation that coordinates standards. Nevermind that these standards are an international affair, with two big blocs, the US and EU, setting rules limiting the costs and hassle for businesses selling into multiple different markets. 

Nevermind that there didn’t seem to be any particular intent to diverge from EU standards: businesses would have to submit effectively the same paperwork on the same issues simply to gain a UK badge.

This latest extension gives British businesses more time to comply. (To complicate matters further Northern Ireland’s position is different thanks to the protocol). But it still doesn’t address underlying issues. 

One is a shortage of capacity in the relevant bodies to cope with the demand to vet products. In some cases, those bodies don’t exist at all. The automotive sector, for example, has pointed out that there is no UK body to certify pyrotechnics, a crucial part of air bags, something that would have prevented them selling cars in the UK from January.

More significantly, suppliers in Europe and other countries have also proved unwilling to bear the cost and hassle of recertifying or rebadging their products, or overhauling their manufacturing, for a market the size of the UK. 

That means it is entirely possible that this issue comes around again. Unless, instead of pursuing what Sam Lowe from the Centre for European Reform calls “performative divergence”, the government accepts that this is a change that comes at significant cost and with little real benefit. 

The government is starting to rethink rulemaking in other areas, like parts of financial services, in a way that actually supports its contention that regulation can be better and more nimble outside the strictures of the EU. 

And it would, of course, maintain the option to change UK product standards if it wanted. Other countries that recognise the CE mark carve out certain areas.

Sovereignty means the scope to be different or to choose to stay the same: the freedom to make sensible choices. Let’s hope the idea catches on.

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