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WP.29 and World Government

15 February 2013

I ran across this commentary by Richard North on the Britannia Radio website which gave me pause. After all, the notion that I am involved in a conspiracy to subvert British independence is worrying indeed.

Broadly, Mr. North argues that Britain has fallen victim to a pernicious system whereby Geneva dictates the standards to which British cars will be built.

He decries his belief that Norway (chosen because it has no car factories and does not belong to the EU) has more say than the UK in setting regulatory policies.

While most conspiracy theories involve the Illuminati, alien encounters, and/or paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Mr. North makes a well-articulated case in what appears to be a reasonable and fact-based argument.

The fatal flaw in the argument, however, is that Mr. North draws conclusions based on the end phases of the WP.29 process much as if one were to assess an assembly line by watching cars roll off the end.

Since Mr. North touches upon some common misconceptions, I offer the following to clarify how the Forum really works.

No Seat at the Table

Because the European Commission (EC) casts the votes of the 27 EU members, Mr. North declares that “despite the UK having major vehicle manufacturing interests, producing its 1.58 million cars in 2012, we have no direct vote on vehicle standards. We do not have a seat at the table.”

The UK most certainly has a seat at the table and often sits at the head of the table. While the European Union does vote as a block (I’ll get to this later), EU members have their own delegations within WP.29.

So not only do the UK, Germany, France and other EU member-states speak with separate voices within the Forum, their representatives often head the various Working Parties and expert groups that actually write the regulatory proposals.

Where the Work Gets Done

And it is in the preparation of proposals that the real work gets done. A major change generally involves years of work by technical experts around the world who submit a draft text to one of six permanent Working Parties, each specialized in areas of vehicle performance (noise, lighting, chassis, etc.).

National representatives (including government, industry, and advocacy groups) directly participate in this drafting work and in the Working Party deliberations on whether to forward a proposal to the full Forum.

Thus, by the time it comes before the Forum, a proposal has already been extensively vetted by all concerned stakeholders such that Forum reviews are almost a formality. But even at this late stage, a typical Forum session offers not one but two occasions for the rejection of a proposal: first when each proposal is explained and a decision taken on whether it should be voted, and second when the actual vote takes place.

Moreover, the vote itself is by consensus. Any concerned country may oppose a proposal (although the usual practice is to abstain, allow the vote to go through, and then, during the six-month waiting period created for this purpose, notify the UN of the intention not to transpose the proposal into local legislation).

In sum, the entire logic of the Forum ensures broad participation in crafting regulatory texts combined with a near pathological devotion to conflict avoidance by rejecting or resolving contentious proposals early in the development process.

EC Block Vote

And about that EC block vote, it only comes after consultations between the Commission and the member-states.

The Commission obsessively observes well-worn consultative procedures to achieve consensus among EU stakeholders. The EC studiously refuses to vote on even the most innocuous of editorial corrections absent this expressed authority to do so.

Ultimately, the EC may cast the 27 votes, but the UK authorizes the Commission to cast its vote.

Whose Rules Are They, Anyway?

Mr. North further frets over the recent streamlining of EC procedures through the direct integration of UN Regulations into EU law, stating that “the EU’s own major regulations on the general safety of motor vehicles have been replaced with UN Regulations. They aren’t EU regulations any more. They might have an EU label on them by the time they get to us, but they’re made in Geneva, not Brussels.”

While I suspect that Mr. North would find the establishment of vehicle regulations in Brussels only marginally more palatable than in Geneva, the fact is that the regulations are not “made in Geneva”; they are only agreed there. And the irony is that his view really turns things upside down.

The World Forum started out in the 1950’s as a European project which is why, despite being a very global enterprise today, WP.29 remains under the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Indeed, the work of WP.29 has proven so effective that other nations have joined what had been a European club. The EU streamlining decision simply reflects the strong role Europe plays in the establishment of UN Regulations. The involvement of the UK and other EU members is so pervasive that it was simply a waste to subject UN Regulations to a redundant EU approval process.

At the same time, the EU has in no way abandoned its sovereignty. The EU continues to develop its own regulations, but prefers to cooperate with other nations in establishing uniform worldwide test procedures and performance requirements. As long as WP.29 meets EU needs, the Commission will accept UN Regulations. If not, the EU goes its own way.

Mr. North makes his case (and has even extended it to the United States) with apparent authority. Fortunately for those of us who believe our global industry benefits from coherent worldwide regulations, Mr. North is wrong.

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