Harmonisation is when countries agree to adopt the same (or substantially the same) regulation, standards or policy settings.

Harmonisation is the most comprehensive formal type of regulatory cooperation. The commitment is normally documented and legally binding.

The rationale for harmonisation

A way to work with others with similar objectives

Harmonisation can be a good option for countries that share policy objectives and where a common approach is suitable given the different conditions in those countries. If regulatory approaches are already similar, it can be easy to negotiate a common approach which works for the countries involved.

Harmonisation also extends to rules developed by an international multilateral organisation, which are often backed by a formal international instrument or model law. Countries which adopt these rules will end up with a harmonised regime.

International organisations

Benefits and risks

Benefits include greater certainty and easier international trade

Harmonisation can offer benefits including:

  • Providing a high level of certainty and reducing costs for businesses and the public, as they only need to know about, and comply with, one set of regulatory requirements, policies or standards.
  • Helping improve the quality of policy, regulation and standards through access to a wider pool of expertise and resourcing across the participating countries.

Risks include complex negotiations and less control over domestic settings

Harmonisation has some potential shortcomings:

  • It may limit the ability of individual countries to determine their own policy and regulatory settings.
  • It can be highly resource intensive to set up and maintain.
  • It may favour the larger countries in the arrangement.
  • In order to satisfy all the countries involved, it may result in the ‘highest common denominator’ prevailing, leading to over-regulation.

Some of these risks can be managed through opt-out provisions which reintroduce some flexibility. Another option would be to create a dual regime whereby a business that operates only domestically can opt to comply with domestic rules, but if it wants to operate in the participating countries, a single harmonised regime is available.

Case studies

Case study: The harmonisation of ASEAN cosmetics regulation is a success story

The harmonisation of ASEAN cosmetics regulation was one of the first concrete instances of intensive economic integration between ASEAN countries. It is a surprisingly successful example of relatively rapid implementation of harmonised technical standards and an unusual balancing of the free trade agenda and consumer protection.

ASEAN cosmetics regulation

Case study: Moving from ambitious top-down harmonisation to interoperability and informal cooperation

Cooperation within ASEAN on intellectual property is a story of an overly ambitious start in 1995 focused on top-down harmonisation and then steady progress following a more bottom-up approach.

Intellectual property cooperation in ASEAN