CEN voting maths (& Brexit again)

This summer, the CEN general assembly changed its voting system by adopting criteria inspired by the qualified majority voting rules under Lisbon Treaty of the European Union (EU).  We will get on to the maths soon, but first – what does CEN do?

CEN (Sunday name: the European Committee for Standardization) is an association that brings together the National Standardization Bodies of (currently) 33 European countries.  It is a private non-profit organisation – outside the European Union, but with a mission to support the economy of Europe in international trading.  CEN has been around since 1961, but the history of systematic standardization across Europe can be traced at least as far back to the 18th century and the development of the metric system – with the telegraph system and time keeping being notable steps along the way to where we are now.

CEN is one of three European Standardization Organizations (others are CENELEC -est. 1973 and ETSI – est. 1988) that are officially recognized by the European Union and by the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) as being responsible for developing and defining voluntary standards at European level. CEN standardization activities cover a wide range of sectors – notably (for our interests) construction, materials, machinery, consumer products, packaging and the environment.

Standardization is a key instrument for facilitating cross-border trade as it tackles numerous “non-tariff” or “technical” barriers to trade that, in practice, actually make the biggest difference to the operation of international markets.  This was important to trade even in the ancient world and our interconnected modern world is utterly reliant on it.  In particular, the European Standards (ENs) developed by CEN are a key tool for the operation of the European Single Market (European Economic Area, EEA) because they set out a common framework that everyone can work within.  Since they are useful, European Standards are also used outside the EEA – and indeed CEN standardization work is very influential at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO – est. 1947) level.

The members of CEN are the National Standardization Bodies of the countries that are member states of the European Union (EU) and other countries that are part of the European Single Market.  The National Standardization Body of the UK is the British Standards Institute (BSI – est. 1901).  There are also affiliate members of CEN, which can also be involved in the technical work, but are not involved in the voting.

It is these National Standardization Bodies that, collectively, develop and define European Standards in response to the needs of businesses, consumers and other users of standards.  This is achieved through a large number of CEN Technical Committees, sub committees and working groups formed of experts that are nominated by the National Standardization Bodies, which themselves have internal committees that discuss the work at national level.

Some of the European Standards are created in response to specific requests (“standardization requests“, formally “standardization mandates”) issued by the European Commission (the executive of the EU).  The “harmonized standards” (such as EN 14081 for structural timber) enable businesses to ensure that their products and services comply with “essential requirements” set out in European legislation.  While technically voluntary, these standards are, in practice, the normal way to comply with the laws that are not voluntary for trade within, or into, the European Single Market.

Also, although technically voluntary, certain ENs are also effectively made compulsory by the effect of national legislation, contractual requirements, insurance terms and industry codes of practice.

Each National Standardization Body member of CEN is obliged to adopt each approved European Standard as a national standard in their country. They also have to withdraw any existing national standard that conflicts. This way, the same European Standard becomes the national standard in all 33 countries covered by CEN Members.

Approval of a European Standard depends on votes, which are cast by the National Standardization Bodies on behalf of the country they represent.  Voting rules are a tricky balancing act between efficient decision making and reaching of agreement, and equality and fairness for individual countries.  It is the mathematics of this voting process that has changed.  The new rules are:

Only votes that are cast are taken into account – abstentions are not counted (but many countries will vote positive by default if there is no opinion actively raised within the country)

  • The first part of the check is a 55% majority of members
  • The second part of the check is that those positively voting members must represent at least 65% of the combined population of the countries that voted
  • If the result is negative, the check is calculated again using only members of the EEA

The EEA members are the EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and United Kingdom …plus EFTA members Iceland and Norway.

Switzerland, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey are also CEN members, but since they are not in the EEA they are not included in the second check if it happens.

Affiliate members of CEN are not involved in the voting at all.

We covered the topic of Brexit and standards in a previous post.  There we noted that, if the UK was not in the EEA (European single market) after Brexit, it is most likely that BSI could not be a Member of CEN, without a change in the Statues of CEN.  If BSI cannot be a CEN member, the UK does not get a vote.  BSI has stated that it will work to continue to be a full member of CEN but this is one many things that will depend on future political negotiations.

Even if BSI continues as a member of CEN the UK would not, in those circumstances of being outside the EEA, be counted in the second check (being in the same position as Switzerland, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey).  It is also worth noting that formal objections to “harmonized standards” can only be initiated by EU member states (and the European Parliament).

This is pretty important for at least three reasons.  Firstly, these European Standards are useful and, effectively, unavoidable if you are selling onto the European single market – and indeed for may aspects of trade within the UK thanks to factors like contractual requirements, insurance terms, industry codes of practice and compatibility with other products and services.  Secondly, so far the UK has been very active in the development of these standards.  Thirdly, as a country with a large population, the UK falling outside of the voting makes a huge difference.

Currently – with these new CEN rules, the UK’s vote (through BSI) counts as 10.8% of the population of all CEN member countries combined, and 12.7% in the case of the second check –  A very powerful vote (compares to the UK being just 3% of the unweighted vote).

In practice this means that, currently, an EN can be voted negative (because it’s is deemed not yet ready for publication) by the negative votes of the three largest EU countries (which are all active in standards development): UK, Germany, and France …although only just (the vote would be 64.6% if all other members voted positive).  This differs from the voting rules of the Council of the European Union where a blocking coalition must consist of at least four member states.

The voting power is shown below, here calculated for the EEA countries on the basis of the second check – compared to the previous CEN system in which voting weights were calculated with a given points system.  The big winners gaining voting power are Germany, France, UK and Italy.  Spain gains a little, Poland, Romania and the Netherlands have little change, and the rest of the countries lose voting power.  Ireland’s voting power drops by half.

In the UK’s new found ambition of “taking back control” we should be careful not to relinquish such a powerful position in the development of European standards. – which we cannot avoid using even after Brexit.  There may be some scope for having our own British Standards in some small areas, but if we want to be an innovative, international trading nation we need to be using ENs and ISOs.


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