EU-US trade talks: technical standards no longer a trade barrier?

Science often plays a crucial role in commerce, through technical product standards, often used as trade barriers. These non-tariff barriers are imposed by importing countries around the world to restrict the entry of certain goods into their markets, officially, as a means to protect consumers and the environment, among other objectives, but, more often than not, as a means to protect internal trade.

Using science in this way sometimes creates collateral damages Indeed, for developing countries, a lack of scientific capacity means that they usually end up on the losing side when trade disputes arise, as reported in Scidev.net. For example. Vietnam was prevented to use the term catfish when exporting to the US, following a tighter definition of catfish, which only covers the US species. Similarly, India is in a dispute with Japan over standard related to shrimps. The same applies to coconut exports from the Philipines, as the coutry’s scientists were unable to establish the levels of aflatoxin, a carcinogenic mycotoxin produced by moulds, in coconut because of EU standards, which are more stringent than those found in other countries with only 0.02 parts per billion tolerated by the EU compared with 20 parts per billion in the US and 30 parts per billion in India.

But this may all change, according to Reuters. Indeed, in recently initiated EU-US trade talks, the United States and the EU are eyeing to start negotiation in June 2013 on what they dub a “21st century” agreement to be reached by the end of 2014. The plan is to scraps tariffs, and many non-tariff barriers, including technical standards.

The big picture idea, Reuters reports, would be to design “the next generation of business regulations and inducing the rest of the world, notably China, to sign on to them.” The benefits of having joint standards on issues such as car safety or a unified drug approval process would cut costs and therefore lower prices for consumers.

Yet, there might be a lot of resistance before unified trade standards emerge. Genetically modified organisms or hormone-fed beef, are among the types of technology, emanating from the US, that do not necessarily gain acceptance in Europe. Nevertheless, if such a trade agreement is eventually reached, it would mean that technical standards are no longer used as a trade barrier, but as a means to use science to enhance trade and protect consumers.

Featured image credit: James Provost

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