Scott Steedman is Director of Standards at the British Standards Institution, where he has primary responsibility for BSI’s role as the national standards body. This is a sponsored post by the BSI.

Imagine a critical part of global trade where UK businesses and consumers have an unparalleled position of leadership, where nearly 100 important international committees are managed by UK experts and where the British approach shapes decisions taken by businesses on every continent.

Now imagine that this has nothing to do with the UK’s membership of the European Union, or NATO, or even the United Nations, but it influences nearly every product and service you can buy in this country and those sold in most other places too. Arguably, it is the UK’s biggest single contribution to free trade and open markets.

And finally imagine that this success story is not affected by whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal, but it could none the less be thrown away absent-mindedly, in the next few weeks or months. 

Now you can stop imagining. This is reality, right now.     

Each country has an organisation like mine, the British Standards Institution, to agree national standards and co-ordinate with others by means of a highly developed consensus-building system. BSI is not a part of government; it is proudly independent and makes its decisions based on expert stakeholder consultation to help improve business practices. 

More than tariffs, more than quotas, a uniformity of standards supports businesses to trade across borders. Those standards simplify the conditions of market access across the world, reducing technical barriers to trade, and underpin the rules-based system of international trade. The more that common standards are adopted globally, the easier it is for businesses of all sizes and sectors to win customers in markets near and far. These standards are not laws, but good practice benchmarks, agreed by businesses, consumers and regulators. 

We work with other countries to develop new standards for evolving technologies, extracting the maximum benefit from our world-leading science base. Standards constantly evolve, as human ingenuity generates new ideas. Originally conceived over a century ago as a means to agree on engineering issues such as the dimensions of steel sections, standards have grown to cover all major sectors of the economy and today are enabling new technologies to thrive, such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and the internet of things.

The continued use of international standards is critical for the UK’s ability to trade around the world, inside or outside the EU, supporting trade policy and deals while helping to maintain the UK’s flexible and pro-competitive regulatory model.    

We in the UK occupy a strong leadership position in the international standards system, shaping a global approach which has been embraced by almost every major economy in the world – including China, Canada, and Australia. As the national standards body, BSI enables UK experts to shape and influence international standards, which are then adopted as British Standards. We withdraw old standards that are no longer relevant.  The view of businesses and consumer groups is that this system reduces red tape while increasing consumer protection. 

So, if it is all so great, why am I worried?

Because one major trading partner, the USA, is different. The US approach to setting rules governing market access is distinct from the rest of the world. There is great potential in a trade deal with the US but with great opportunity comes great risk and we need to manage that very carefully.

Rules for placing products on the market in the US are controlled at federal, state and municipal level in a complex web of legal requirements. The US system relies on manufacturers meeting technical standards usually set by US industry. Occasionally these rules refer to international standards, but more often they are private US standards, sometimes even obsolete. It is a jungle for foreign companies. This is very different to the UK, which has a simple system for compliance covering the entire country linked to international standards that UK experts influenced and voted on. 

This issue is urgent because we risk losing control of the standards used in the UK but gaining nothing in return. It is likely that US negotiators will request the UK agrees to recognise that using US industry standards would give rise to the same presumption of legal conformity to UK regulations as British Standards. There would be no guarantee that British Standards would be accepted on a reciprocal basis. 

The US is well prepared for trade negotiations and has positioned its standards bodies to advance US interests. If the UK is to succeed in these negotiations, BSI, as the UK’s national standards body, needs to have a seat at the table opposite our US counterpart. Get trade deals right and we generate real competitive advantage for the UK. Get them wrong and we end up a standards taker falling into a trap where we become followers of US practices.     

Global Britain needs global standards that our industry experts, regulators and consumers help to shape and want to use. These international standards are key to maximising the opportunities for the UK from free trade around the world. Let’s act collaboratively and maintain a constructive dialogue, so that we don’t risk throwing away our hard-fought influence. 

* BSI is independent and politically neutral. To reflect this a similar article has been placed in LabourList.