Structural anchors and the Construction Products Regulation
18 July 2017
Barbara Sorgato, secretary general of the European Consortium of Anchor Producers, reflects on the implications of the seemingly painful and convoluted transition from ETAGs to EADs.
Structural anchors have been under the exclusive competence of the European Organisation for Technical Assessment (EOTA) for decades. Their CE Marking was shaped under the Construction Products Directive, expressly for an EOTA approach. Such approach reflects the historical German system for certification, in which a third party body always expresses the final decision – judging the product’s performances at its sole discretion.
Therefore ETAGs, the guidelines for these Approval Bodies were conceived to leave the latter with free will. Actually, each Approval Body had the power to propose, through its customers’ ETAs, their interpretation of the guidelines. The result was customised ETAs, with test methods inserted ad hoc.
Of course, there was a circulation period amongst all Approval Bodies, but only a few of them made comments; those able to give technical comments and, above all, to carry out regular checks on ETAs made by competitors. The most active of these was the German DIBt.
With the change of the CPD into the Construction Products Regulations (CPR), the European Commission took on a key role in the EOTA process. This is because the Regulation is European Law, not a European directive anymore. All that is written inside it has a legal status and overwrites national laws on CE Marking for construction products. The Commission has the role and responsibility of a ‘guardian’ for the proper implementation of the law, in order to protect SMEs, which are considered the backbone of our economy but, at the same time, also less aware and less safeguarded within the complex mechanism of European norms.
This role implies examining all CEN and EOTA documents before they are published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). Such inspection follows the logic of the CPR and, if this is not sufficiently expressed, it follows the European Commission’s interpretation of the CPR.
As for anchors, in the last few years we have seen the transfer of ETAGs (European Technical Approval Guidelines) into the related EAD (European Assessment Documents). In the initial periods the Commission regularly rejected EAD drafts on the grounds they were written following the logic of the CPD, that is as approvals instead of assessments.
Once the Technical Assessment Bodies (TAB) began to understand the logic, and once the format with which EADs should be written had finally been established, the drafts were still rejected. This time it was because the text contained technical changes or it was not written with one voice, which is for the manufacturer, and not for TAB consumption. But transforming an ETAG into an EAD without any technical change is almost impossible.
Let’s take a practical example. ETAG 001 describes a test method saying that it should be applied ‘normally’. That ‘normally’ has implied that, over all these years, some Approval Bodies and TABs have issued dozens of customised ETAs for situations considered ‘special’. But in fact products of these ETAs were tested and assessed in a different way.
By transferring the ETAG into EAD, the word ‘normally’ is obviously not accepted by the European Commission, which demands clarification. So, either the word ‘normally’ is deleted, or test and assessment methods are defined.
By deleting ‘normally’ the consequence is that those ETAs on ‘special’ products end up not having any reference EAD anymore. In the second case a certain TAB and its customers are favoured, while the manufacturers whose ETAs have been tested and assessed in a different way are obliged (from the point of view of marketing) to re-test their special products according to the new test included in the EAD, and so are also obliged to remake their ETA.
As the discussion is extremely technical, the Commission has decided to ask for the industry ‘green light’ before publishing an EAD in the OJEU. The industry spends a considerable amount of time checking that no technical changes are introduced, and that retrospective compatibility of existing ETAs is retained. Technical debates, however, are bilateral, without a shared table for discussion, because a real EOTA Working Group has not met for at least two years.
One could say: ‘Well, then meet around a table with all stakeholders involved, get back to the technical debates that were interrupted and define the safest method/methods, revising the EADs together’.
Right! But this is the crux of the matter. As a matter of fact, this working method, according to the CPR, officially belongs to standardisation, not to the EOTA. The discussion table with the different stakeholders is that of CEN. The EOTA must take care only of the single products written by a single TAB. There is only one exception at the moment – the transfer of ETAGs into EADs, a grey area where discussions and quarrels are admitted, at least for as long as the Commission insists on also involving the industry.
But then, if the natural evolution of EADs is to become CEN standards, what about European producers, big or small, who have invested in the
‘ETA European mark’ for decades, and that see the entire process slow down and their business endangered? And what if, something we hardly discuss in Europe, the ETA loses reputation across global markets?
Manufacturers of some other products have already decided to move their products from the EOTA to the CEN. But for anchors it is even more complicated, because ETAGs on anchors are the historical base of the EOTA.
It is not a coincidence that the first ETAG is called ETAG 001, and the first ETA was the one for a mechanical anchor.
Here, then, is the strong defence of ETAs and the boycott of Declarations of Performances (DoPs) by those manufacturers, which choose to include in their DoPs only the number of ETAs – omitting to write, as requested by the CPR, their characteristics. In doing so, they save pages and pages of data pasted and copied from the ETAs but they accept the risk of being fined by market surveillance authorities for DoPs that are incompatible with the CPR. All this to permit ETAs and EADs to have their central role, in this Copernican world where everything rotates around the ETAs and their undisputed technical value, higher than any other mark, including the CE Marking.
Those manufacturers who invest time and effort to draw up very long DoPs, as required by the CPR, are left in doubt whether the choice to respect at all costs the CPR – making a hard drawing-up of DoPs obviously not conceived for EOTA products – can be considered a winning choice, as the market surveillance authorities seem absent in this respect. Do they realise the problem, do they not want to or can they not realise? It is a matter of fact that in the construction sector the division of powers and roles is not always maintained. If a national body in fact does not practice its function, which other actions are possible for a small ‘virtuous’ company to guarantee correct competition within the internal market?
Trying to look at European things from a higher point of view, technical debates on EADs and political discussions about the interpretation of the CPR – with related legal actions at the European Court – in the end seem all linked to a sole, fundamental, common reason: The progressive realisation by the European Commission of a legislative European Union, defying political, technical and procedural obstacles.
Attending the Standing Committee on Construction (the Commission’s consultative body on construction products) as one of the SMEs representatives, I see how this realisation, in the conservative construction sector, attracts the opposition of member states. I cannot get rid of the impression that, behind the sprawling legal debates and the justified defence of national safety, the same member states that voted the CPR in the Parliament – now that it is put into practice – cannot stomach the central role of the European Commission. When I ask why was the CPR voted, one whispers that “member states weren’t really aware, nor did they understand the implication of the CPR when they voted it”.
Well, if this is true, we should maybe pay a bit more of attention to the skills of the people that our member states send to Brussels to represent our interests.
Passing beyond the sensation of powerlessness that emanates from seeing the stalemate of EADs, and even more that of European standards in this moment, I say to myself: This hard phase is probably a forced move, if for Europe, as it seems, it is time to take the lead in its administrative and legislative union.