An “Extraordinary” Row over Standards and Measures?

The Daily Telegraph’s Christopher Booker recently reported, rather breathlessly, that “An extraordinary row, involving major European and US industries, is blowing up over the European Commission’s determination to make it illegal, in three years’ time, for any products made in or imported into the EU to carry any reference to non-metric measures.”

This is, of course, the infamous Directive 80/181 [pdf], which seeks to regularize European standards and measures and thereby preclude the use of the imperial measurements used in the UK and Ireland as well as those found on imports from the United States. Standards and measures requirements are essentially cousins with anti-dumping legislation, the application of the precautionary principle, export subsidies, and other forms of disguised protectionism. With the increasing liberalization of international trade, these sorts of tactics have taken on increased significance, and in this case pose a considerable threat to the stability of Transatlantic trade (with billions of dollars and Euros at stake).

As such, Mr. Booker is right to raise the alarm about this particularly insidious example of a non-tariff barrier to international trade. However, he conveys the impression that this is a new development (“an extraordinary row.”) The coming debate over this issue, between British, Irish, and American countries on the one hand and the European Commission on the other, is only the most recent installment of a longstanding dispute. After all, Directive 80/181 was issued on 20 December 1979, and the change to a strict International System of measurements within the EEC was delayed for ten years, due chiefly to British and Irish concerns about a transition. Directive 89/617 further set the timetable back, this time to 1999, and a further directive delayed the transition to 31 December, 2009. As a compromise, Brussels has countenanced the use of “supplementary indications” of quantity, which Britain, Ireland, and the US have used in packaging goods bound for Europe.

While it is true that this is an “extraordinary” row in one sense – technical barriers to trade are manifestly contrary to the interests of both consumers and manufacturers in the EU’s member states and those in the US, Britain, and Ireland –  it is nonetheless an ordinary, or at least decennial, row. While Mr. Booker states that an upcoming meeting of the British Department of Trade and Industry is a forlorn hope, and that the DTI “can only plead in turn with our real government in Brussels, which has shown itself wholly immovable on this issue,” those of us in the US concerned about the future of stable Transatlantic trade can find some solace in the fact that in 1979, 1989, and 1999 Brussels has indeed been movable, and amenable to interim common sense. The current arrangement, with the International System plus an allowance for supplemental indications, strikes the perfect equipoise in this dispute, and would ideally be extended in perpetuity. That said, European and American exporters will probably settle for ten more years, in which case we can all count on having another such row in the run-up to the 2019 deadline.