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Document 52017AE0766

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council and the European Economic and Social Committee — Developing the EU Customs Union and its governance’ (COM(2016) 813 final)

OJ C 434, 15.12.2017, p. 43–50 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, HR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

15.12.2017   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 434/43


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council and the European Economic and Social Committee — Developing the EU Customs Union and its governance’

(COM(2016) 813 final)

(2017/C 434/07)

Rapporteur:

Dimitris DIMITRIADIS

Referral

European Commission, 17 February 2017

Legal basis

Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

 

 

Section responsible

Single Market, Production and Consumption

Adopted in section

5 September 2017

Adopted at plenary

20 September 2017

Plenary session No

528

Outcome of vote

(for/against/abstentions)

162/0/3

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1

The EESC considers that an efficient customs union is an essential prerequisite for the European integration process with a view to ensuring the free movement of goods and strengthening the EU’s competitiveness and its commercial and negotiating capacity, but that it is also important for the development of a Security Union as it contributes greatly to combating newly emerging and unprecedented security threats whilst protecting the security of citizens and their financial interests.

1.2

The EESC believes that the main aim of the new customs legislation is to simplify procedures and bring them into line with the latest data, and that effective application of the Union Customs Code (UCC) would help to boost the EU’s economic competitiveness across the world.

1.3

The EESC agrees with the Commission’s proposal to develop the governance of the customs union, but believes that establishing it in a comprehensive way requires multilevel reform and resolute action on the technical front, without changing the EU’s competences or upsetting the balance between the institutions. However, the EESC underlines that any reforms undertaken should not hinder the facilitation of legitimate trade or the protection of fundamental rights.

1.4

The EESC believes that effective application of customs legislation consists primarily of efforts to minimise the possibility of varying interpretations by Member State administrations. This must be preceded by the completion of interoperable computerised systems and a shift to a fully digital environment, using a range of resources on which the organisation and functioning of national authorities is based.

1.5

The EESC considers that a switch to automated central clearance is needed, in order to facilitate the coordination of measures to prevent and suppress criminal activity and protect the EU’s financial interests, so that the rights, interests and safety of businesses and European consumers are protected. For that reason, the EESC calls for the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which would make a positive contribution to that end.

1.6

In the EESC’s view, a common European customs strategy is needed encompassing the dual role played by customs authorities: border control, together with mixed tasks — customs checks and collection of duties, and helping to prevent and combat criminal activity. At the same time, it must provide for the optimisation of material and human resources, by investing in expanding and upgrading the former and prioritising training and preparedness of the latter, for EU administrative support measures to be developed in applying the relevant legislation and for closer monitoring of its application.

1.7

The EESC believes that the strategy must be designed taking into consideration the diversity of economic operators who must comply with customs legislation, the immediate need to harness new technologies and innovation while ensuring full respect for the data privacy of individuals and businesses, as well as for intellectual, industrial and commercial property rights, and also taking account of the human factor that is the driving force of customs authorities. Special attention must be paid to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers.

1.8

The EESC considers that the functioning of the decentralised operating model needs to be strengthened by means of administrative cooperation, with central coordination by a support body or organisation under the guidance of the Commission and with the involvement of the Customs Policy Group, in order to assist with implementation issues concerning the UCC. This body would also be tasked, among other things, with the operation of action and training programmes focusing specifically on security matters, the provision of a high level of specialisation and promotion of professional expertise in the customs sector. At the same time, it could issue guidelines in order to respond rapidly and directly to new challenges.

1.9

The EESC also considers it vitally important to extend and reinforce the Customs 2020 and Fiscalis 2020 programmes, which can act as catalysts in the targeted absorption of funding for governance purposes (training, dissemination of information, operational action, equipment, etc.).

1.10

The EESC looks forward to an intensified process of concluding agreements on mutual administrative assistance with trade partners that fully reflect the steadily expanding trade cooperation with non-EU countries and the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

1.11

The EESC believes there is a need to take key measures in the areas of protection and security, where customs authorities are already having to face challenges. It consequently considers that cooperation between customs and police authorities needs to be put on a more institutional footing and centrally coordinated. Cross-sectoral cooperation between European bodies and decentralised services must also be reinforced with the aim of stepping up the Union’s action and of increasing its presence on the external borders through the Member States. Cooperation should aim, among other things, to tackle terrorist funding and arms trafficking and to check dual-use goods and the related technology more thoroughly. In addition, counterfeiting and piracy need to be tackled efficiently and effectively.

1.12

The EESC considers that all the measures taken must necessarily include an open dialogue with all stakeholders (businesses, consumers, customs authorities, customs officials, trade unions and civil society organisations) in order to gain a clearer and more complete picture of the issues to be resolved, while taking into account the interests of all sides.

1.13

Finally, the EESC believes that whatever approach is adopted to modernise the customs union, it must properly take into account the changes in the external borders of the Union which will be brought about by Brexit.

2.   General points regarding the Customs Union

2.1

The customs union has been a vital prerequisite for European integration, in particular to ensure the uniform and smooth implementation of the free movement of goods in a safe, transparent and environment- and consumer-friendly manner that is effective in tackling cross-border activities that are punishable by law (1).

2.2

The customs union is the cornerstone of the single market and must consequently fully reflect its needs. It has in addition served to help boost EU competitiveness on the global market. The contribution made to the European budget by customs duties is also very significant. Specifically, in 2015 revenue amounted to EUR 18,6 billion, representing some 13,6 % of the EU budget.

2.3

As well as protective measures in the form of prohibitions and measures aimed at ensuring safety and security for EU citizens, setting up the customs union also requires introducing or reforming measures such as the adoption of a common trade policy and common external tariff, as well as a preferential tariff introduced through association agreements between the EU and neighbouring countries and potential candidate states, but also through free trade agreements with third countries.

2.4

The objective of the customs union is to facilitate legal trade and in this way strive to combat fraud in trade transactions and at the same time block the illicit movement of goods and financial transactions that could be used for illegal or terrorist purposes.

3.   Gist of the communication

3.1

The Commission’s purpose in publishing the communication was to launch a dialogue about modernising the customs union to reflect the new situation that has evolved over time on account of:

internal challenges posed by the broadening and deepening of the EU and the significant qualitative and legislative differences between public administrations, which have inevitably led to a reduction in revenue and a proportional increase in operating needs,

ever-growing external security challenges and threats, with the most important example being imported terrorism and cross-border crime, together with issues arising from the globalisation of international trade — such as continuously evolving business models, supply chains and the growth in the volume of transactions generated by agreements with third countries — as well as use of the internet,

with a view to carrying out a structural reform of basic aspects of the customs union and establishing a new governance model.

3.2

In the communication, the Commission emphasises the need to boost the efficiency of the customs union by modernising its architecture, in order to step up cooperation between EU customs authorities and create structures that can evolve in an adaptable and flexible way.

3.3

The communication in question does not suggest extending EU competence to new areas, but represents an attempt to modernise customs union policies by making them more flexible and efficient so as to respond to continually changing situations.

4.   Problematic aspects that must be taken into account

4.1

The review of the UCC introduced significant amendments with the aim of simplifying and facilitating trade. However, customs legislation and legislation on the free movement of goods as a whole remain highly complex, comprising some 1 127 texts currently in force (agreements, directives, regulations and decisions) (2). This makes it difficult for anyone to invoke the relevant provisions unless they are already familiar with European law.

4.2

The previous regime clearly contained greater ambiguities, leaving room for relevant national legal provisions to creep in, with arguable consequences that were damaging to uniform application. The comprehensive codification of the UCC means that European law is directly applicable and has direct effect, although it is still implemented exclusively by national customs systems that vary substantially in organisational terms, resulting in fragmentation, a heavier administrative burden, bureaucratic dysfunctions, and delays (3). Moreover, the exceptionally lengthy transitional period generates uncertainty and could be detrimental to businesses, especially micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and consumers.

4.3

Customs authorities have traditionally been responsible for collecting customs duties and indirect taxes, but they are now also asked to help strengthen the Union’s external borders and tackle illegal practices that are harmful both externally and internally.

4.4

EU enlargements have placed a greater burden on the decentralised model, requiring coordination and retraining of more than 120 000 customs staff, since fundamental differences exist between customs systems, inspection mechanisms, logistical infrastructure — which now requires high-tech systems — providing staff for customs offices, and resources.

4.5

The application of new technologies in European industry and the introduction of the digital single market, together with the proposed reform of the VAT system, represent progress, but they increase the need for customs procedures to be flexible and adapted to the complexity of modern transactions. The same applies to evolving production and consumption patterns, increasing international trade, and global threats to the development of global trade, which form part of the context of EU trade policy.

5.   Concept and basic principles of customs union governance

5.1

The concept of customs governance should be based on the following components:

mixed tasks: customs controls and collection of duties (purely financial) on the one hand and preventing and helping to combat global threats influencing the Union on the other (criminal activity, terrorism, organised crime, environmental degradation and growing hazards from trade in dangerous goods),

investment in more effective application by optimising material, technological and human resources, investing heavily in upgrading the former and prioritising training and preparedness of the latter to boost their professionalism and ensure their accountability,

EU administrative support for applying the relevant legislation in a uniform way and closer monitoring of its application,

strengthening interconnectivity between national customs authorities,

fleshing out official cooperation in order to improve response times and ensure the most comprehensive possible operational management,

a cross-sectoral approach to security between customs authorities and law enforcement authorities by generating synergies and sharing information,

adapting to the changes introduced by the legislative package establishing the digital single market and reforming the EU’s VAT system,

harnessing new technologies and innovation while ensuring respect for data privacy of individuals and businesses,

prioritising any plan to protect consumers and facilitate customs clearance (based on the ‘think small first’ principle),

principles of good administration, legal certainty and transparency,

a priority focus on human resources and conserving jobs.

6.   Necessary general reforms

6.1

In keeping with the Commission’s proposal, with which the EESC agrees, the operational vision for the customs union should be upgraded to form a coherent strategy with a clear timetable, based on the principles set out above and the points examined below.

6.2

An impact study and evaluation of the new UCC needs to be drawn up, an interim version of which is to be prepared before the end of 2017, modelled on previous studies but with greater breadth and in all areas of activity (4), so that the strategy invests in eliminating problems, weaknesses, overlaps, inconsistencies and obsolete measures, and ensures that the next steps in the process are built on a sound basis (5). The study should also pay particular attention to the implications for customs human resources.

6.3

The focus should be on exchanges of information and best practices between customs and administrative authorities through the systematic and methodical use of information technology. Existing databases should be assessed for customs purposes to this end.

6.4

A decentralised and business-friendly model based on the administrative structures of the Member States can succeed only in so far as the national administrative authorities are heeded. In consequence, permanent, flexible institutional structures need to be set up. For this reason, it is proposed to set up a support body or organisation under the guidance of the European Commission and with the involvement of the Customs Policy Group, with a view to:

assisting with legislative implementation issues — in part through a comprehensive guide to application of the UCC and organisation of the other texts,

managing the IT infrastructure; also encapsulating the European Customs Training Institute (6), which, on the basis of the EU Customs Competency Framework, will be responsible for:

ensuring a high level of specialisation and promoting professional expertise in the customs sector based on the European Training Curricula,

organising operational action and training programmes focusing specifically on security matters,

putting together a comprehensive guide to applying the UCC and its implementing provisions, and structuring the relevant legislation,

sharing management of electronic systems to ensure accessibility of information and procedures on the single platform in order to make things easier for third-country operators. To this end, the move to a paperless environment should be immediately stepped up, creating a common reference point to simplify procedures, as provided for in the UCC,

possibly deciding to issue guidelines with the aim of responding rapidly and directly to new challenges.

With regard to this organisation, the EESC maintains its position and recommends the creation of a European rapid intervention team to support the specialised and important work of customs authorities, particularly those situated on the Union’s external borders.

6.5

The EESC considers that the Commission Customs Policy Group — which operates informally, and whose current powers are minimal and its influence negligible — could come to play a significant role in the new era of customs governance (7). The EESC therefore recommends drawing up rules of procedure and urges the Member States to work together to allow this body to operate as efficiently as possible. Another important issue in the EESC’s view is significantly enhancing the existing cooperation between the Member States and groups of experts on issues relating to customs policy.

6.6

The EESC considers that the Customs 2020 Programme has achieved positive results in disseminating and relaying information on the customs union to both customs staff and businesses. It is a useful tool for cooperation between the EU and candidate and potential candidate countries (8), and expanding it and prolonging it beyond the time frame initially set would therefore help to roll out cross-cutting actions (9) regarding the following matters:

ongoing, high-quality training and information for the relevant personnel on the basis of European data and models,

an investment and funding component to upgrade and modernise infrastructure for non-invasive sensing and laboratory testing and, likewise, invest in the staff of national bodies with a view to completing a single digital system.

6.7

The EESC further considers that the Fiscalis 2020 programme, which aims to enhance the Member State tax systems, could also help to develop common measures and promote closer cooperation between tax and customs authorities at transnational level.

6.8

The EESC supports the Commission’s efforts, as reflected for example in the communication on an action plan on VAT, to strengthen this cooperation by creating a toolbox to be available to the legislative and other authorities of the Member States when seeking to combat VAT-related tax fraud. The benefit of such a toolbox would be to facilitate the move to a definitive VAT system in the EU for cross-border trade, based on the principle of the country of destination.

6.9

The EESC supports initiatives concerning standards and as part of dialogue with the World Customs Organisation (WCO), and therefore welcomes the introduction of the authorised economic operator and of single accreditation and certification. It therefore calls on the Commission to look into the potential for refining these initiatives with the aim of further reducing the administrative burden and obstacles for businesses.

6.10

In this context, the EESC believes it is necessary to uphold and implement the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, which simplifies and clarifies international import and export procedures, customs formalities and transit requirements. Moreover, the EESC believes it is crucial to step up the process of concluding agreements on mutual administrative assistance with trade partners that fully reflect the steadily expanding cooperation in trade with non-EU countries.

6.11

The EESC welcomes the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Union legal framework for customs infringements and sanctions, which has unfortunately been significantly delayed: its adoption, with the positions expressed by the European Parliament at the first reading, as well as the arguments already put forward by the EESC (10), would contribute to greater uniformity and legal certainty.

6.12

The EESC considers that a Single European Window (portal) needs to be created, based on the single audit principle, to minimise the administrative burden and drastically simplify customs clearance procedures. This requires the immediate development of the EU certificates database and automated verification of certificates.

6.13

The EESC is concerned about the changes Brexit will entail for the EU’s borders. We nevertheless support fully transparent negotiations conducted in good faith. We believe that the commitment to the Northern Ireland peace process must be ensured and the creation of a ‘hard border’ avoided, but in a way that is not harmful to the Union and its interests.

7.   Specific reforms required (police and judicial cooperation on criminal affairs, health and safety and environmental measures)

7.1

Here, the emphasis should be on protecting the EU’s external borders from threats by developing synergies with neighbouring countries or candidate and potential candidate states, and with their customs authorities, in order to manage risks posed by exceptional security situations (fraud and related illegal activities, terrorism, sanitary, veterinary and phytosanitary incidents or environmental incidents), while also examining the potential to enhance international cooperation for the same reasons, especially with potential and current trading partners.

7.2

There should be a thorough study of the need for revision of other specific legislation that has been in force for more than ten years without amendment and which has a substantial impact on customs governance. The REFIT platform might be a useful tool for assessing whether the regulatory framework for customs legislation is ‘fit for purpose’ in this regard. The EESC underlines, however, that any reforms undertaken should not hinder the facilitation of legitimate trade or the protection of fundamental rights.

7.3

The EESC appreciates the development and implementation of the EU Strategy and Action Plan for customs risk management and notes the need to intensify efforts in areas falling outside the customs remit, as noted in the Commission’s Progress Report in 2016.

7.4

In addition, the EESC welcomes the efforts made at bilateral level, but considers that cooperation between customs, judicial and police authorities needs to be put on a more institutional footing so as to more effectively tackle terrorist funding and arms trafficking, to protect intellectual property rights, dual-use goods and related technology, by means of risk-based controls as prescribed by the Customs Risk Management System (CRMS) and with due regard to the EU Strategy and Action Plan for customs risk management and the Commission Action Plan for strengthening the fight against terrorist financing. Moreover, greater efforts need to be made to tackle counterfeiting and piracy efficiently and effectively.

7.5

It is necessary to move forward with the process of amending Regulation (EC) No 1889/2005 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 October 2005 on controls of cash entering or leaving the Community, based on the outcome of the public consultation and the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force.

7.6

To this end the blacklist of countries that refuse to take adequate measures to combat money-laundering should be reviewed. The list was rejected by the European Parliament for not adequately reflecting the current situation: checks should therefore be stepped up, as also provided for in the relevant directive under revision (fourth anti-money-laundering directive).

7.7

The EESC urges the Council and the Parliament to finalise the establishment of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which is in charge of investigating, prosecuting and bringing to justice the perpetrators of offences against the Union’s financial interests, and calls on all members to join the effort.

7.8

The EESC also considers that cross-sectoral cooperation between European bodies and services (decentralised or otherwise) such as the European Police Office (Europol), the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), the European Union Judicial Cooperation Unit (Eurojust), and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), should be strengthened and reinforced on the basis of the strategy on integrated border management and Regulation (EU) 2016/1624 and with special reference to the European Agenda on Security, in order to:

strengthen the interagency dialogue and the involvement of customs in order to boost the action and presence of the Union on the external borders via the Member States for the purposes of preventing, detecting and investigating the financing of criminal activities,

set up an early-warning information and data exchange system (sharing of supply chain data and relevant information on risks) fully in line with the provisions of European legislation on the protection of personal data with due regard to the Renewed Internal Security Strategy (2015-2020),

modernise customs controls and develop the coordination of customs cooperation at EU level,

gather, exchange and record best practices in order to share and pool capacities and capabilities,

prepare for the transition to smart borders.

Brussels, 20 September 2017.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Georges DASSIS


(1)  OJ C 229, 31.7.2012, p. 68.

(2)  Self-assessment study (assessment of the functioning of the customs union by the national customs authorities). Study on the Evaluation of the Customs Union (Specific Contract No. 13 implementing Framework Contract No. TAXUD/2010/CC/101, DG TAXUD, 2013).

(3)  See for example EESC opinion on the State of the Customs Union (OJ C 271, 19.9.2013, p. 66).

(4)  Commission Communication on Blueprint of EU Customs Union governance reform (DG TAXUD — A1, 07/2015).

(5)  European Parliament resolution of 19 January 2017 on tackling the challenges of the Union Customs Code implementation (2016/2017(RSP)), P8_TA(2017)0011.

(6)  The EESC also included such a proposal in its opinion on the Union Customs Code (OJ C 229, 31.7.2012, p. 68), in the form of a European customs training institute. The proposal was not taken up by the European Commission within the UCC.

(7)  Customs Policy Group — Full Members (level of Directors General of the Customs Administrations of the EU (E00944)).

(8)  28 EU countries and six candidate and potential candidate countries were involved.

(9)  See for example http://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/business/customs-cooperation-programmes/customs-2020-programme_en

(10)  See OJ C 487, 28.12.2016, p. 57.


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