Proposals to introduce standardisation systems across Europe – covering services that could range from tattooists to tourism – have met with hostility from business and caution from consumer groups.
Introducing a standardisation system for services is one of 12 so-called "key actions" that the European Commission has committed to achieving before the end of next year as part of its Single Market Act re-launch.
Standardisation of goods is well established at EU level, and individual member states already use some standardisation in the services sector. The Commission believes that such standards should be developed at European level to facilitate cross-border services.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an EU official explained that "there are sectors, notably in the field of logistics, where there is a need for standardisation".
"Industry itself believes that if we could create standards then that would give customers a clearer picture. For example, the customer would have an assurance of the degree of professionalism, speed and suitability of the service provider," the official said.
But early responses from business representatives were hostile, claiming that moves to standardise should emanate from industry rather than policymakers.
Luc Hendrickx, director of price policy at the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME), said all standardisation should "emerge from the bottom-up" and be market-driven, claiming the move risked imposing further burdens on SMEs.
Meaningless for small businesses
"Standardising services is not a good idea," claimed Tina Sommer, president of the European Small Business Alliance (ESBA). She said the exercise would be "completely meaningless," adding: "Small businesses are involved in the creation of standards far too little to be able to come up with anything sensible."
Big business was no more enthusiastic. Guido Lobrano, a senior adviser on internal market issues at employers' group BusinessEurope, said that standardisation projects should not be launched until there was a need for them, explaining: "Standards should be market-driven, voluntary and international insofar as possible."
Consumer groups: Lukewarm response
Even consumer representatives gave the proposal a mixed response, welcoming the idea but insisting that the process needed close monitoring.
A spokesman for European consumer group BEUC said it was "positive and good" that standardisation should cross over to the services sector. But he added that, unless the process was driven by consumers, "there is a danger that too much of the standardisation will emerge as a result of policy and decision-making bodies".
Stephen Russell, spokesman for ANEC, the European consumer voice on standardisation, said there was a risk that industry would have an undue affect on any standardisation process. He said: "Business has the motivation, resources and the expertise which are all key factors in setting standards. That is why we need to be assured that consumers will play a part in the process."
The Commission is aiming to push for standardisation in the business-to-business sector first – in areas such as logistics or facility management services. But it wants to open up standardisation to the widest range of services and make the adoption of standards straightforward.