Europe and the European Standardization System: Lights and Shadows

When some European countries  decided  to  withdraw  their  national  currency and   to replace it  with  the Euro,  they certainly decided to give up  much of  their national sovereignty. Well, at that time the economy was doing well, it was certainly a big advantage for everybody to use a single very stable currency, which could be borrowed at very low interest rates: so, at  the  beginning of the  Euro  Era  everybody was  happy. But then the economic situation worsened: some banks and  financial organizations thought they had  found the  way  to exploit this stability in order to make money without creating wealth. As a result of this basic mistake, they started having serious financial problems, problems that were quickly transferred to  the  industries, thus  undermining  their  ability  to create  new  wealth.  Also  the single national European governments, particularly the  ones  with a consistent sovereign debt, realized  that waiving  their  ability to  print  money was   causing  a  raise in  the interest rates they were obliged to  pay  on  their debt: and  these  additional  costs  had  of course  to  be  charged  on their  citizens  and  their  industries, thus  increasing the   differences among the  countries of the European Union. With the further problem that there is no guarantee for these countries that they will even find a buyer for their bonds; in other words, there is the risk that they are going bankrupt, which in the case of a country is called a default. It’s hard to imagine the meaning of this: no  money to  pay  pensioners, public employees, policemen, soldiers, no  money to  buy medical services and medicines, not even the money to pay goods coming from  abroad,  even  from  the  other  partners  of  the  Single  Currency  Area.  This phenomenon,  of course,  risks  to  be  turned  into  a  kind of  cancer that  sooner or  later will  infect all the countries in the  world: a lot of companies will go bankrupt, workers and employees will lose their jobs, not only in the Single Currency area, not only in Europe, but also in those countries for which Europe is an important export market… unless somebody will realize that a single currency has a meaning only if behind it there is also a single country, or at least a real federation of countries  determined  to  help each   other. Failure  to  understand  this  will  simply  mean  that  in Europe the “spread” between the interest rates will generate a spread between the economies  of  the  different  European  countries,  and  this  at  the  end  will  cause  problems everywhere in Europe. Only the mutual help among all the partners of the European Union will be  able to  solve the  problem: what would have happened in the former DDR if western Germans had not paid the cost of supporting their eastern fellows? And what would have happened in Italy if the northern Italians would have refused to support their southern fellows? The cost of this lack of support would have been probably much higher than the cost of the support itself. But in order to share this behavior British, French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards etc.  must first understand that Europe is now only a very small piece of  a globalized world where new strong economic powers have made their appearance. Therefore the only way in which we can survive and save the historical background of our civilization is to start behaving as Europeans, that is as citizens of a single country, ready to help each other for the sake of assuring a common future to everybody.

Is this pure philosophy? May be. However it has to be recognized that the  European institutions do not seem to have been designed in order to support this idea. What is remarkable is the incredible level of  bureaucracy that one has to face each time he has something to do with these institutions. Let’s take for example CEN, the European Standardization Committee. Standards are important for the industry: to use the same standards is of a big economic advantage  not   only for   the   European  industry,  but   certainly  for   all  the   European citizens. Unfortunately Europeans do not speak all the same language, as, for example, Americans, although  nowadays  most  of  them  speak  or  at  least  understand  English.  Well,  some  European politicians feel so proud of their national languages, that they will never be willing to follow the example of India (where the problem of more than 40 different languages – in the European Union we have only 20! – has been solved with the use of the English language in all the official documents).  Therefore,  first  problem:  which  language has   to   be   used   in  the preparation  of   the   standards?  The  CEN  constitution  provides  the  use of  three Official languages:  English,  French  and  German.  Have  you got  an  idea  about  the  cost  of  the translations? And about the problems caused by the different interpretations of the  original text (generally in English) when translated into the other two languages? Many years ago, when I started my work as Convenor of WG”Design” of CEN TC54, in our meetings at BSI in London there were two nice ladies charged of  the  consecutive translations of each intervention into the other 2 languages: apart from the unavoidable misinterpretations (despite their experience and good  will, those two  ladies  had  probably  no  idea  about  the  mysterious objects concealed behind funny names like flanges, shells and tubesheets), the need for a consecutive double translation involved the need of multiplying at least by three the duration of the meetings. After several years  it was   finally  decided to eliminate the  consecutive translations  and  start using, at least as spoken language for the meetings, the English language only, like it was made in the Working Groups from the beginning. But having solved the  problem of languages (at least for   the   purpose   of   understanding   each  other  in  the  technical  discussions),   the   overall bureaucratic spirit of  CEN  asked for  a compensation. Therefore the rules became more and more stringent. Of course it is easily understandable that all the  standards are  to be made with the  same style, using the  same size and  type of  characters, and using the same word processors and  graphic programs: a little bit less understandable is the fact that, in order to do any kind of work on a specific subject, you have first of  all to  open a Work Item and then fix binding target dates (with severe punishments if you do not respect them) for the presentation and the approval at the  TC level, for the Public Inquiry and for the Formal Vote.  In order to start the Public Inquiry you have of course to make the translations of the original English text into German and French, hoping that the translators will be able to do their work correctly, without introducing into the text unwanted modifications. But what is really a Public Inquiry? Easy, it is an occasion in which all the  people who never took part at the  preparation of the standard will start asking funny questions, that you  are  obliged to answer if you  want to arrive at its approval. In fact all the modifications proposed during the  Public Inquiry, unless you are  willing to  accept them, should receive a written answer in which you must explain the   reasons  for  rejection. The  only  problem  is  that,  dealing  with  standards  for  design  and calculation  of  something,  you  will  surely find  a  lot of  people  ready to  ask   questions and propose modifications, but very  few  people ready to  test  the  standard by using it for a sample calculation: so that the  majority of  mistakes (sometimes not  merely misprints) will be  discovered when the  standard will come into force. Therefore the Formal Vote (like the name itself says) is a mere formality: the vote is generally given by people who have never used the standard, and therefore can only make an evaluation on the basis of their familiarity with the methods used.

Taking into account the difficulties involved in the above procedures, you  will probably think that the experts working  for the preparation of  the  standards are earning a lot of money. Well, you are wrong. In the majority of cases they are volunteers, who have their own job at home, and can dedicate to standardization only remnants of their time. Moreover, in order to have the great honor to be a standardizer you  have (or  your organization has)  to pay: in fact CEN is the federation of the various European national standard organizations, you are not allowed to work in the CEN TCs or WGs if you do not pay a fee to your nominating standard organization; unless, of course, you are an employee of this organization.

Well, some time ago this was not completely true: at the beginning of our work on the new harmonized standard EN 13445, there was an agreement between CEN and the European Commission:  on  the  basis  of  this  agreement  the   experts  working  for   the   harmonized standards of the Pressure Equipment Directive did receive money for their services. But after about 10  years,  for  reasons  that  it  would  be very  long  to  explain,  this financial support (although in theory it could still be required today by the CEN members) was  terminated in the worst possible way, that is withdrawing the payment of the experts for the work they had already done, and asking back the money which was already given to them (I have already told this very sad story in another newsletter, so I will not repeat it now).

Well, this is not  exactly the  way  of  making standards used  elsewhere in the  world. This summer I was in Paris for the Pressure Vessel and Piping conference organized by  ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. At the end of the Conference, after the Official Conference Lunch, there was a distribution of prizes and  honors to  the  people working in the  ASME Committees for the development of the ASME standards. The experts who worked many years for such Committees received a medal, a certification, and a check (500$, 1000$ or even more, depending on the years they had spent in such committees). But the  nicest thing was not  the  money (in any case not enough to be considered as a payment for their services): it was being called on stage to receive an award from the President, while all present applauded. And it was really a pleasure to see all these people coming back to  their tables with a big smile depicted on  their faces, and with a feeling that there was  somebody in the  world who could appreciate their work: maybe a usual feeling among actors, singers, doctors, saints,  poets and   painters, certainly  not   among  the   experts of Pressure Equipment standards. By the way, I do not know how many experts of CEN have ever received at least a letter from the CEN management saying “Thank you  good man,  so go ahead”. Well, although I am not in the CEN management, this is exactly the message that I would like to send to all the friends of my WG. I know that it is neither a medal, nor a certification, and certainly it is not a check, but it is probably the maximum reward that they will receive from CEN for the work they are doing.

Dr. Fernando Lidonnici

Convenor of WG53/CEN TC54