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A leading figure in the UK materials handling industry says enlargement of the European Union should be seen as an opportunity not a threat, but the authorities should take urgent steps to allow British and other Western European manufacturers a level playing field in order for them to compete fairly against low cost economies.

John Meale, managing director of Thorworld Industries, a major manufacturer of loading bay and materials handling equipment, made his plea during the 2005 Orgalime 50th Anniversary Conference, ‘Engineering The Future,’ in Brussels.

Orgalime is the European federation of national associations representing the largest manufacturing industries in the EU and embracing the mechanical, electrical, electronic and metal working sectors in 23 European countries. It includes over 130,000 companies, employing some seven million people, which in 2003 accounted for 1,175 billion Euros turnover (more than 25% of the EU’s manufacturing output and a third of its manufacturing exports).

Mr Meale, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport (FCILT), is a former President of the British Materials Handling Federation (BMHF), past Chairman of the Association of Loading & Elevating Equipment Manufacturers (ALEM), and now a board member of the Federation Europeenne de la Manutention (FEM), the European Federation of Materials Handling, and also President of its Elevating and Loading Equipment Product Group.

He was speaking during a round table debate on “Integrating Europe”, alongside MEPs from Slovenia and Spain, together with a member of the Cabinet of the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement.

“When the original Common Market was established there were limited numbers of members, with no massive differences between them,” he said. “Now there are 25 members with significant differences in size, output, inflation, wage rates and infrastructure development.

“There are opportunities for us in the UK to sell to new member countries. However, it also works the other way, with opportunities for low cost economies to sell to us.”

He said that not all new member states were adhering to legislation and directives aimed at levelling out the situation across the EU, such as wage rates, quality & safety standards and hours of work.

“It is vital that the European institutions and governments create a level playing field and ensure by efficient policing that all imported goods are produced to the same high standards as those produced in Western Europe.

“I have personally seen products from the emerging states which do not carry the CE-mark and that in my view are totally unacceptable in terms of both quality and safety, and support is therefore needed from governments to help ensure that these do not reach the market place.

“At the moment nobody’s really checking to see if the new member states are conforming to EU standards, which is why we are already seeing inferior and unsafe materials handling equipment coming into the UK.”

Mr Meale said that as self-policing was evidently not working, stringent EU checks and enforcement were required.

“At present, checks and investigations are generally only made after there has been a problem or accident, by the Health & Safety Executive and the Department of Trade & Industry.

“Enforcement is required, ensuring full implementation of directives and quality standards right across the EU, before any further expansion with low cost economies takes place.”

He said that as a result of manufacturers in new EU member states becoming involved with organisations like Orgalime and FEM, as UK companies have already done with the BMHF, it should make them more aware of the standards expected in Western Europe and in time these will then be achieved.

“EU enlargement could certainly be seen as a threat to the overall manufacturing base in Western Europe,” he admitted.

“But the world is now a very small place and we must look to the opportunities that the new Central and Eastern European member states bring to us, along with the formidable challenges arising from Asia.

“If we do not utilise the benefits of the low cost economies in order to move forward in our own businesses, then some will not survive. This can mean buying goods, parts and services from them or even becoming involved in joint ventures. But it’s essential that any products or services should always be at least in line with the appropriate EU standards”.

“At Thorworld we already source some components for our equipment from outside the UK, but in addition to achieving the appropriate EU quality and safety standards, we always insist that these fully meet our own exacting requirements too”.

Thorworld Industries is the leading one-stop, single source supplier of loading and unloading equipment for the loading bay, materials handling, distribution and logistics sectors.

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