EEA Technical Regulations versus Global standards
EEA technical regulations make up 1,972 of the 5,591 regulations in the EEA acquis, i.e. approximately 35% (as of 6th November 2017). The EU's 2016 standards bodies report provides a measure of how aligned EEA regulations are with global standards: 58% of CENELEC standards cited in EEA technical regulations are identical to IEC standards; 24% of CEN standards cited in EEA technical regulations are identical to ISO.
The US Trade Department Report for 2016 provides insight to the EU's attitude to international technical standards. While in theory the EU allows producers to use international (non-EU) standards to demonstrate product safety, in practice it is prohibitively difficult and expensive. US exporters feel compelled to use harmonised European (EN) standards "...even if the U.S. products are produced according to relevant international standards providing similar or even higher safety levels."
The same report also illustrates that even the US has little influence over harmonised European (EN) standards "..when a U.S. producer uses an EN it is likely using a standard that has been developed through a process in which it had no meaningful opportunity to participate. This is particularly the case for SMEs and other companies that do not have a European presence."
This reality is is in stark contrast to the claims of "global regulations" used to support the Norway/Flexcit option. EEA technical regulations are EU-centric rather than global and are not open to outside influence or directed by global bodies (if anything, the EU looks to upload its standards to ISO rather than the reverse). The EU erects barriers against use of recognised non-EU international standards. WTO TBT Agreement Article 2.4 (encouraging use of international standards) does not appear to be the redundancy notice for the EU's Single Market that Norway/Flexcit advocates suggest.
Continued UK participation in European standards organisations
BSI (British Standards Institute) aims to retain membership of CEN and CENELEC post-Brexit, even after leaving the Single Market (EFTA states including non-EEA Switzerland, EU accession states and recently Turkey are also members with voting rights). membership would provide the UK with a continuing voice and vote on European (EN) standards, but requires EN standards are adopted as national standards and any conflicting standards are withdrawn.
Similarly, UKAS (UK Accreditation Service) are aiming for continued membership of EA (European Accreditation) in addition to membership of global accreditation bodies ILAC and IAF. This would maintain recognition of UKAS as the UK National Accreditation Body and recognition of certificates issued by UKAS and and UKAS accredited organisations (i.e. UK Notified Bodies) throughout the EU.
However, both CEN/CENELEC membership criteria and EA membership criteria requires EU/EFTA membership, or candidate for EFTA/EU membership with established target date for accession. The UK has rejected EFTA membership and the Single Market, so continued UK membership of CEN/CENELEC and EA must be open to question.
Future UK-EU trade relationship
EEA membership or even just membership of CEN/CENELEC requires continued harmonisation with EU standards, without divergence. However, being locked into EN standards prevents the UK from using or recognising alternative international standards - which in turn raises technical barriers with non-EU countries, notably the US. Nor are EN standards superior to other standards. For example, Andrew Chapman's blog post on Technical Barriers to Trade looked closely at anti-slip footwear regulation (EN ISO 13287:2012) and found evidence that the test is not a reliable indicator of the safety of footwear, so much so that the British Health and Safety Laboratory uses an alternative human-based ramp test.
Some argue that because the EU is our largest market (outside the domestic UK market), we must inevitably remain yoked to the EU's technical standards and regulations. But why not allow or recognise other international standards provided they meet the essential safety objectives ? Businesses focussed on the EU market will continue to use EN standards and demand the same from their supply chain, but other businesses may develop with a different focus. In some instances or sectors, the UK domestic market and/or overseas markets may exceed the value and demand of the EU market. It seems to me we should let the market decide which standards to use. While some commentators worry about a lack of "regulatory coherence" countries such as South Korea (who have FTA's with both the EU and the USA) seem to be managing quite nicely.
Conformity Assessment is the main anxiety of Norway/Flexcit advocates. But as I explored in an EU Question blog post, this is easily navigable by using EN standards and an EU-based "importer". Some sectors have "pre-approval" requirements (e.g. pharmaceuticals, chemicals etc), but the solution is similar, with registrations to be held by a recognised EU based representative. For the small number of manufactured products that required third party assessment, UK notified bodies can be used provided they have a subsidiary or sub-contract relationship with an EU-based body. Consignment checking is based on risk analysis and it is unlikely that products/manufacturers/importers with a good track record of compliance will suddenly face a higher inspection rate - even without a UK-EU agreement.
A Mutual Recognition Agreement on Conformity Assessment will allow UK-based Notified Bodies to continue to be recognised in the EU (and vice versa), without needing a sub-contract or subsidiary relationship (note that WTO TBT Agreement Article 6.3 encourages members to enter into MRA's on conformity assessment). A regulatory co-operation agreement covering market surveillance would continue existing co-operation and assist targeting of consignment checking by customs authorities. Such agreements are common to FTAs and are found in CETA (Canada's FTA with the EU).
A Canada style FTA with the EU would seem to offer the best solution for technical regulations. Regulatory freedom from EU-centric technical regulations combined with agreements that minimise trade friction.