Where to find data on Non-tariff barriers to trade?

Quality Infrastructure contributes to free trade. Quality Infrastructure services create confidence, build trust and facilitate trade transactions.

Nevertheless, trading partners often consider technical regulations and market surveillance as unjustified barriers to trade. Membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) allows countries to protect their legitimate interests in the areas of health, safety and environment. Therefore, countries are obliged to notify all technical regulations to the WTO. If a trading partner doubts the legitimacy of a measure, the WTO will apply conflict resolution mechanisms.

The European Union Market Access Database (MADB) is an informative source of trade barriers. The database was launched in 1996 as part of the European Union’s Market Access Strategy. The Market Access Strategy is a key pillar of the EU trade policy, which aims to reduce barriers for European exporters of goods and services. [3]

The Directorate-General for Trade offers the database free of charge to pursue a dual purpose:

  1. Providing practical information to exporters on export conditions in third markets, and
  2. Equipping policy actors with the necessary tools to monitor the local context in which EU trade is operating and the observation of trade agreements by third countries. [3]

The database has twelve different sections; six of which are separate databases. From a Quality Infrastructure perspective, we are primarily interested in the information regarding barriers to trade, which is actively used by public authorities [3]. The Trade Barriers Database informs about such obstacles in its Complaint Register. A statistical database allows access to trade figures and to display them for specific commodity codes.

We can identify five measures related to Quality infrastructure: 

  1. Certification
  2. Labelling, marking and packaging requirements
  3. Lack of or insufficient protection of geographical indications
  4. Sampling
  5. Standards and other technical requirements

To show what kind of information the database provides, we have selected one example from South Africa on an Electromagnetic Interference and Compatibility Conformity Assessment Procedure:

The background to the case is that South Africa requires a Letter of Authority (LoA) for imports of electrical and electrotechnical products that want to gain access to its market. The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) demands the LoA as proof that the product meets al mandatory technical specifications (energy efficiency, energy-saving and safety requirements) of the country. From June 2017, these products must comply with a new, even stricter conformity assessment procedure of the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) in the form of a Certificate of Conformity (CoC).

The European Union (EU) considers various elements of this conformity assessment system a barrier to trade. From the EU point of view, the mandatory certification stipulated by conformity bodies (NRCS/ SABS) is stricter than necessary, given the risk profile of the products. There also seems to be no justification to reject results (test or inspection reports, certificates) of conformity assessment bodies accredited under multinational recognition arrangements such as ILAC. Finally, the EU considers the cost of compliance to be excessive and disproportionate, given the low-risk profile.

The case shows that conformity assessment requirements and procedures may well lead to trade conflicts. In the case of technical regulation, each country must have a transparent system of risk assessment. Multilateral agreements on accreditation should allow importers to have conformity testing carried out by a laboratory of their choice if it has international accreditation for testing.

In this respect, the European Union Market Access Database is a good source for identifying weaknesses in the Quality Infrastructure. Of course, not all objections are fundamentally indisputable, primarily as the European Union pursues its trade interests. In the specific case of South Africa, the SABS has published its view in am official document [2]. It would, therefore, be helpful if developing and emerging countries could articulate their opinions on non-tariff barriers to trade in a dedicated database.


[1] Groenendaal, Hans van de (2016). EMC/EMI compliance to be reviewed, in EE Publishers, Articles, June 30th, Retrieved 13/05/2020

[2] SABS (2017). Modification of the South African Bureau of Standards Program on Issuance of Certificates of Compliance Related to Electromagnetic Compatibility for Manufacturers, Pretoria, Retrieved 13/05/2020

[3] Vincze, M. P., et al. (2011). Evaluation of the Commission’s Market Access Database. Brussels, GHK.

Feature image by DesignRage

This entry was posted in Conformity assessment, Data, Quality Infrastructure, Standards, Technical Regulations and tagged , , , , , , , , , by Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke

Dr Ulrich Harmes-Liedtke is a global expert in the field of international economic development cooperation. With more than 25 years of consulting experience, he is active in all phases of a project and program development (preparation, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation) and collaborates with various implementing organizations and development banks (German Development Cooperation - GIZ and PTB -, Inter-American Development Bank, European Union and United Nations). He has consulting experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Dr.Harmes-Liedtke is an experienced trainer and process consultant. He works with groups and teams to reflect on their situation and to then formulate change projects to improve their reality. He enables dialogue, facilitates and designs workshops, processes, and sense-making processes. He is certified in facilitation, mediation, and communication techniques which allow him to deal with sensitive, diverse, and even conflict situations. He supports systemic economic development in various roles: • As an expert and trainer in international trade, national quality policies, industrial policy, clusters, and global value chains • As a process consultant in designing and leading diagnostic processes that result in change, adaptation, and improvement • As a facilitator of dialogue, workshops, training, and sense-making processes • As a transdisciplinary researcher in the field of systemic economic development Born 1965, Ph.D. in political science and economics (Bremen 1999), MA in economics (Diplom-Volkswirt) (Hamburg 1991). German nationality.

3 thoughts on “Where to find data on Non-tariff barriers to trade?

  1. The Case study cited makes you question the benefit of accredited laboratories if certificates issued outside of one’s country are not accepted. Perhaps the risk profiles are considered differently by developed and developing countries related to products of interests to them given their asymetric levels of development, quality Infrastructure maturity, experience, technical expertise and application of good regulattory practice.. Measures taken for legitimate policy objectives may result in being protectionist/barriers only because of poor regulatory design and non application of Regulatory Impact Assessments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Jo-Anne,
      Thank you very much for your feedback and the reference to the UNCTAD-TRAINS database.
      Yes, TRAINS provides information on conformity assessment measures related to technical requirements and food safety.
      It is certainly thanks to your work that data on Trinidad and Tobago is also available at TRAINS.


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