KANBrief 4/23

ANEC: The collective voice of European consumers in standardization

ANEC is one of the Annex III organizations under the Standardisation Regulation whose involvement in standardization is particularly supported by the European Commission. In this interview, Director General Stephen Russell talks about the organization, its working methods, and current developments affecting it.

What is ANEC’s mission and how is it organized?

ANEC represents national consumer organizations in countries that are members of CEN-CENELEC. Our members are not organizations, but individuals appointed with the support of a consensus among the national consumer organizations. Liaising between ANEC and the grass-roots consumer movement at national level, they play a key role in setting ANEC’s strategic vision, one that responds to future needs for standardization in order to raise consumer protection and welfare. Similarly, our members are asked to present collective ANEC positions on standards and legislative proposals to national standards bodies, national public authorities and local MEPs as needed. This relationship is of great value, considering the significance of the national delegation principle in shaping European and international standardization.

An objective for 2024 is for ANEC to be a catalyst in strengthening the relationship between the consumer movement, standardization bodies and public authorities in specific countries. It is to the detriment of both economic and social interests if the consumers’ voice is not properly heard in standardization. Just before the pandemic, consumer spending accounted for 54% of EU Gross Domestic Product. We believe that the demand for products and services of European businesses, including SMEs, will not be optimised without consumers who are confident and empowered, aided by inclusive standards. Unfortunately, the focus of the national authorities invariably tends to be on strengthening the supply side, in line with the old mantra “standards for industry, by industry”.

How is ANEC involved in the standardization process?

At the technical level, ANEC’s positions on draft standards and elements of the standardization process – such as the Standardization Request at European level – are set out by ANEC Working Groups, which comprise experts drawn from across the member countries. The ANEC Working Groups number seven in total, each reflecting an area of priority for ANEC as determined by the members: Accessibility, Child Safety, Digital Society, Domestic Appliances, Services, Sustainability, and Traffic & Mobility. The Working Groups’ positions are conveyed directly to CEN-CENELEC, ETSI and ISO/IEC (and UNECE in the case of automotive standards) by experts chosen by the Working Group, and to the ANEC members for dissemination as appropriate. In this way, we can mitigate the weakness – or even complete absence – of consumer expertise in the technical bodies and mirror committees of the national standardization bodies in many countries. Germany is the most notable exception, where the DIN Consumer Council is a dedicated resource. Of course, this long-term under-representation of the consumer voice elsewhere is the reason for ANEC being chosen as an Annex III organisation in the framework of Regulation (EU) 1025/2012, the Standardisation Regulation.

What role does standardization play for consumer protection?

With its combination of regulation and standardization, the New Approach has not only removed technical barriers for business, but also unquestionably improved the protection and welfare of many millions of consumers. Although it is not in the interests of consumer-facing businesses to ignore their customers, their focus tends to be on the average or mainstream consumer, where costs are lowest and profits highest. Without ANEC, the needs of vulnerable consumers (young children, older people and persons with disabilities) in particular would often be overlooked. One of our greatest successes was advocating – and then leading – revision of the first generation of the EN 60335-2 series of standards for domestic appliances: over one hundred standards dealing with a host of everyday products. These excluded use of the appliances by vulnerable consumers except under supervision. Our work here over 20 years has made literally millions of products sold each year safer and more accessible to consumers of all ages and abilities.

What are your views on the High-Level Forum on European Standardization?

The creation of the Forum has been timely. The New Legislative Framework, the successor to the New Approach, is now being extended to fields far removed from those that were the building blocks of the Single Market. Standardization as we know it today started with the standardization of nuts and bolts in 1901. Now it has also been identified as necessary to support legislation such as the AI Act1, and elements of legislation concerning fundamental human rights. But can a process that historically brings together technical experts, where decisions are taken by consensus and participation is so often unbalanced, be the right process to address fundamental human rights?

Thanks to the creation of the Forum, we and our colleagues in BEUC – the mainstream European consumer organisation – are able to lead a workstream to consider these questions and indeed ask whether there should be a limit to what is standardizable. We see that DIN 820-1, addressing the principles of standardization, excludes several fields from standardization in Germany, including ideological matters and topics that fall within the scope of a social partner. Perhaps the scope of European and international standardization should be limited similarly.

What are your thoughts on the review of the EU Standardization Regulation?

In common with many stakeholders, we do not believe that a full revision is needed, but a “targeted amendment”2. Apart from setting limits to what is standardizable, we believe that the regulatory framework should leave it to the Commission to decide on a case-by-case basis whether development of a harmonized standard – considered after all a part of law by the European Court of Justice – can be offered by CEN-CENELEC to ISO/IEC. The environment at international level is very different from that in Europe, not least the approach of some countries to ethics, and the inclusiveness of the standardization process.

We also believe the extension of the New Legislative Framework, even if ultimately limited, is such that the system of HAS consultants is no longer enough. It should be replaced by a “Standardization Scrutiny Board” comprising not only technical experts but experts in a far wider range of relevant disciplines.

1 Study commissioned by ANEC and BEUC on “The Role of Standards in Future EU Digital Policy Legislation” (7/2023)
2 We shall discuss these thoughts further in a position paper on the revision of the Standardisation Regulation that we will publish jointly with BEUC in the coming weeks.