Product standards have played an important role in European integration. One of the first and necessary steps on the road to a common European market for goods was the removal of the barriers to trade among the European Community members. Typically, these would take the form of quotas or tariff levied on goods imported from other countries; often times, however, governments would pass national product regulations which, while disguised as legitimate provisions concerned with protecting consumers, in fact, aimed to prevent the entry of goods from other member states and protect domestic enterprises from outside competition.
Initially, the European Commission attempted to introduce detailed product standards that would have to be applied by all member states. However, the process (known as harmonization) brought little progress mainly because every piece of such legislation at that time had to be approved unanimously and often ended up vetoed by one of the governments. This changed in 1979 when, as part of the Cassis de Dijon case, the European Court of Justice ruled that member states could not ban the sale of products that were already lawfully marketed in another member state, unless the government could demonstrate that it posed a serious threat to essential public interests such as health, safety, consumer and environment protection.
This ruling allowed the Commission to develop a mechanism known as “mutual recognition”, which eventually became the building block of the new wave of economic integration in the 1980s and allowed for the completion of the single market in the early 1990s. Since then the European level legislation for the vast majority of products, such as toys, medical devices or pyrotechnics, has been reduced to essential requirements in the form of more general regulations relating to health, safety or environmental protection. National authorities may only restrict or forbid the marketing of a product from another EU/EEA country if they can prove that the product has failed to comply with these requirements. In parallel, the European Commission also publishes “harmonized product standards”, which lay out the technical specifications that a product should meet in order to comply with the essential requirements. Following these standards, which are developed by the European standard bodies (comprised by national standardisation authorities as well as private interest groups), is voluntary but they make it easier for businesses and national authorities to determine whether a specific product complies with legislation or not and, therefore, to avoid unnecessary bureaucratic hassle.
National market surveillance authorities are responsible for the enforcement of product standards by monitoring whether products on the market comply with relevant regulations and by imposing bans and sanctions in cases where they do not. This applies to both goods produced in the EU and products imported from third countries. The European Commission coordinates the activities of national authorities and supports the exchange of information, for instance, by administering “Safety Gate” - the rapid alert system through which national authorities notify other member states about dangerous products found on their market. In areas that are not subject to EU-wide harmonisation, national regulations apply but member states are obliged to recognize products that have already been cleared in other member states, except for under certain conditions.
Today, the efforts to further harmonize European product rules continue, focusing more broadly on consumer protection rather than on product standards legislation. Where previously the emphasis was on the opening of domestic markets to goods produced in other member states, the Commission’s focus is now on strengthening the position of EU consumers and countering the social and political effects of increased EU-wide and global competition. Such regulation calls for, for example, comprehensible labelling of products in national languages and clear indication of final prices of products; it also protects consumers against misleading advertising or aggressive selling practices (e.g. unsolicited visits to consumers’ home) and provides channels for consumers to claim damages. The Commission’s most recent project in consumer protection, the 2018’s New Consumer Deal, is particularly designed to make deterrence more effective by setting (higher) minimum limits for fines that national authorities can impose on companies, and by introducing the European collective action, which will allow consumers to jointly claim compensations for harm caused by firms violating EU product regulations.