A European Union (EU) high court has ruled that only accreditation bodies from within EU member nations may operate in the region, effectively evicting US and other nations’ bodies from the European market.
The case arose when an Italian laboratory, Laboratory Caracciolo, sought accreditation under ACCREDIA, the national accreditation body of Italy. ACCREDIA denied Caracciolo this accreditation, but Caracciolo was then able to become accredited by a US accreditation body, Perry Johnson Laboratory Accreditation (PJLA). ACCREDIA fought this decision, leading to the current ruling by the European High Court of Justice.
The ruling effectively enforces a ban on any non-European accreditation bodies operating within the EU, and reinforces EU regulation EC 765/2008 which mandates that each member nation may only have one national accreditation body.
The ruling is a dramatic blow to the world’s accreditation scheme on multiple fronts. First, the ruling shows how courts inevitably hold authority over non-governmental agreements such as those of private groups like the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) or International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC). The ruling resolved the legal decision that IAF “mutual recognition agreements” cannot trump international law.
Both IAF and ILAC require member accreditation bodies to sign such agreements allowing them to operate freely in any country, while ensuring each body’s certifications are viewed with equal weight. In reality, these agreements empower the IAF, ILAC, and the IAF’s regional bodies APAC, EA, and others, to provide “protection” for certification bodies and accreditation bodies who later are found to be engaged in unethical or illegal activities. The IAF in particular uses its international role to make arrangements with national governments to respect its MRAs, and normally governments look the other way when IAF scandals emerge.
The IAF is a US company and had been led by the US accreditation body ANAB’s Vice President, Randy Dougherty. When Dougherty retired, IAF was taken over by Chinese Communist Party member Xiao Jianhua. Now the organization is ostensibly being operated from Beijing, despite a Delaware business registration, and corruption has risen to new heights. Under the IAF protection racket, bodies have been found to be engaged in crimes such as bribery, theft of corporate intellectual property, piracy, and even promoting human trafficking, but rarely face punitive actions in their home countries. The recent court rulings against the certification body TUV for its role in the PIP breast implant scandal represented a rare outlier.
IAF IN DECLINE
This latest European Court ruling effectively negates the entire role of bodies such as IAF and ILAC within Europe’s borders. To date, the main purpose of joining such bodies was for accreditation bodies to be able to claim mutual recognition throughout the world, and to then expand their operations. The stripping of this authority may give member bodies more reason to resign from such organizations, and more reason for nations’ governments to investigate IAF scandals.
The automotive industry certification scheme previously split from IAF, and is now managed by the IATF. Elements within the AS9100 scheme are mulling following suit, divorcing from the IAF, suggesting the IAQG may form its own accreditation oversight body.
The ruling also puts the EC 765/2008 back into international attention, after years of neglect. Critics of the regulation have for decades argued that it forces EU member nations to create state monopolies, by only allowing each nation to have a single AB. Protected by the EC 765/2008 regulation, each nation’s body — such as UKAS in the United Kingdom, DAkkS in Germany, and Raad voor Accreditatie from the Netherlands — have been free to engage in corrupt practices with complete impunity. Short of government intervention, such corruption cannot be reined in, and governments are often unwilling to expose weaknesses in their own national accreditation authority. In a recent case in Austria, the Austrian government refused to investigate allegations of bribery of an official within that nation’s accreditation body, Akkreditierung Austria, forcing Oxebridge to take the matter before an Austrian court.
UKAS, for example, has for decades ignored major scandals and allowed its certification bodies to retain accreditation even as crimes were uncovered, and deadly products were released to market, killing members of the public. EU bodies such as DAkkS (Germany), AA (Austria), ACCREDIA (Italy) have likewise refused to take action when reports of violations were submitted related to their accredited certification bodies. ABs resist de-accrediting their certification bodies even after reports of criminal activities, since doing so means the AB would no longer perform lucrative “witness audits,” their primary source of revenue.
UKAS FACING EU OUSTER
UKAS in particular will likely be impacted hard by the European Court ruling. To date, UKAS has insisted that its membership in the IAF regional body EA would ensure its accreditations remain recognized in the EU. The recent ruling would throw cold water on that notion, and likely force every EU company with UKAS accreditation to seek new accreditation from an EU member body. UKAS’ membership in the IAF regional body EA formally expires in January 2022.
It does not appear that UKAS has a working plan on how it would transition its EU clients to another accreditation body, if this should become a requirement.
The European Court ruling is likely to increase some bad behavior, however, especially by national bodies such as RvA and ACCREDIA, arming them with more impunity within the EU. Already, the Dutch body RvA posted a gloating announcement on LinkedIn, with a highly unprofessional attack against US accreditation bodies, essentially tearing up all international collegiality:
The [RvA] Accreditation Council is satisfied with the ruling of the European Court of Justice dated 6 May 2021: only European national accreditation bodies may grant accreditation within an EU Member State.
American accreditation bodies are also active in the Netherlands. “Many parties are unhappy with this. So are we. Especially because of the lower quality of their work. They fly high and fast with their reviews. Within the EU and the EA, we place higher demands on quality. This ruling gives us the basis to take action”, says Roeland Nieuweboer, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the RvA.
RvA is not without its own scandals, however. Recently, it largely ignored a complaint filed by Oxebridge which reported that Control Union was continuing to market RvA accreditation while having had that accreditation suspended. RvA merely restored Control Union’s accreditation, without consideration of the Oxebridge filing. RvA later justified the decision by claiming the Oxebridge complaint arrived too late, and that the decision to restore the accreditation had already been made.
The struggle to improve the validity and trust of ISO certifications worldwide eventually stops at the IAF’s doorstep, and the EU court ruling — along with the recent French court ruling against TUV — may be a sign that the times are changing, and that those in authority are finally be held to account.