A small change can have big consequences. Some of these changes may be unplanned and unpredictable. Some represent welcome developments that complement and contribute to long-running narratives of progress. Arguably, the recent publication of a reference to a harmonised standard in the L series of the Official Journal of the European Union belongs to the latter category. It may yet, however, prove to have unintended consequences that go beyond that which was originally envisioned.
Technical standards have long played a fundamental role in the regulation of the internal market. According to the regulatory technique of the “New Approach”, EU directives establish only the essential requirements of general interest of a product, while referring the detailed definition of technical aspects to private organizations composed of experts and representatives of the business sector, i.e. the European standard-setting organisations (ESOs). To this end, the European Commission makes a request to one of these ESOs and, where a standard satisfies the requirements set out in the request and in the corresponding Union harmonisation legislation, it publishes a reference to it in the Official Journal. Through this procedure, these standards elaborated by private European standardisation bodies are granted a presumption of conformity with the secondary EU law measures they are aimed at complementing. Consequently, they are endowed with the qualification of ‘harmonised standards’.
Recent developments in EU legislation (see Regulation EU) No 1025/2012) and in the case law (see, inter alia, Case C-171/11, Fra.bo. v DVGW) have progressively changed the view of standardization as a purely non-binding, private phenomenon. In particular, the James Elliott case established the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice with regard to the interpretation of harmonised standards in a preliminary reference under Article 267 TFEU, clarifying that harmonised standards shall be considered as “measures implementing or applying an act of EU law” and, therefore, “part of EU law”. This ruling of the Court has thus contributed to strengthen the claims of an unstoppable “juridification” of harmonized standards, fostering the debate on their legal qualification under EU law (as discussed here, here and here). Continue reading