Cooperation: a cornerstone of the EU’s Customs UnionBy Roel van 't Veld, Specialist Policy Advisor, EU Affairs, Customs Administration of The Netherlands
To enable a Customs union to operate properly, active cooperation between Customs authorities within the union must be established. This cooperation is not necessarily limited to legal issues touching on “core” Customs domains, e.g. regulating import and export formalities or establishing a common tariff. An effective Customs union must also provide for Customs authorities to cooperate on law enforcement issues, in order to ensure security and safety within the union, and the effective and efficient fight against crime.
About the European Union
Such is the situation within the European Union (EU), a politico-economic union currently comprising 28 Member States, whose Customs union came into being on 1 July 1968, when the remaining Customs duties on intra-Community trade were abolished and the common Customs tariff was introduced to replace national Customs duties in trade with the rest of the world. In 1993, Customs controls at EU internal borders were abolished, making long queues of commercial vehicles at border crossings a distant memory.
Responsibility for Customs policy is at the level of the EU. It is one of the areas in which the EU has exclusive competence. However, implementing the Customs union relies on close partnerships with and between Member States.
The Council of the EU, which represents the Member States’ governments, decides on what duties to impose, and is jointly responsible with the European Parliament for overseeing Customs cooperation between Member States and between Member States and the European Commission (EC).
The presidency of the Council rotates among the EU’s Member States every six months. During this six-month period, the presidency chairs meetings at every level of the Council, helping to ensure the continuity of the EU’s work in the Council.
Member States holding the presidency work together closely in groups of three, called “trios.” The trio sets long-term goals, and prepares a common agenda determining the topics and major issues that will be addressed by the Council over an 18-month period. On the basis of this programme, each of the three countries prepares its own more detailed six-month programme.
Customs Cooperation Working Party
Within the Council, technical work is mandated to a large number of Council working parties. Two of them are dedicated to the work of Customs:
- the Customs Union Group (CUG), a working party closely related to the trade and competiveness areas, which discusses and decides upon matters regarding Customs policy and legislation;
- the Customs Cooperation Working Party (CCWP), which coordinates operational cooperation among national Customs administrations, and works on aligning the work of Customs with the priorities of the law enforcement community while ensuring that Customs’ valuable knowledge on international goods transport is used to the fullest extent.
Apart from the Member States, delegates from the EC and other EU agencies, such as the Anti-Fraud Office of the EU (OLAF) and the European Police Office (EUROPOL), take part in the discussions of the CCWP.
The current trio chairing the Council is made up of the presidencies of the Netherlands, Slovakia and Malta, with the Netherlands being the first to have taken the six-month presidency from 1 January to 30 June 2016. As such it has been planning and chairing meetings of the Council and its preparatory bodies, including the CCWP.
More specifically, the CCWP was chaired by the Customs Administration of the Netherlands with the support of a small staff from the Secretariat of the Council. A dedicated team of six people [see photo] organized a total of 10 meetings, including a high level meeting gathering Directors General of Customs which was organized jointly with the CUG.
Initiatives related to the fight against terrorism and organized crime
Under the Dutch presidency, its main priority regarding the CCWP was to ensure that the Working Party played a pivotal role in areas relating to Customs, and justice and home affairs. Several of the activities carried out during this period in relation to Customs’ involvement in the fight against terrorism and organized crime are listed below.
As a result of the attacks in Paris and Brussels, the fight against terrorism was high on the agenda of the Dutch presidency. Customs authorities play an important role in protecting society by preventing terrorist organizations from obtaining the means to carry out their attacks, i.e. getting their hands on firearms, explosives or finances.
Part of the mandate of the CCWP is to approve business cases for Joint Customs Operations (JCO). During the Dutch presidency, an enforcement operation was started to fight the smuggling of firearms, jointly by the Customs authorities and police services within the EU. The operation is currently in its final stage. Ahead of the operation, experts from the WCO provided valuable insight on the international dimension of these crimes to the operation’s participants.
At the CCWP, the fight against terrorism funding was also addressed through discussions on the role of Customs in stopping the trafficking of illicitly obtained cultural goods and endangered wildlife. Among other things, experts exchanged best practices on their Customs administrations’ fight against wildlife crime.
The CCWP also started working on effective cooperation and coordination between Customs and the newly established European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EUBCG). In due time, a coordinated border management strategy will be established and discussed at the CCWP, and the WCO will be consulted during this process.
Ensuring cooperation with other law enforcement agencies on a policy and practical level plays an important role in the fight against organized crime. The European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) was set up to implement the EU’s priorities on the fight against organized and serious international crime though investigations and operations. These priorities reflect the fields which require the concerted activity of EU law enforcement institutions, according to the Serious and Organized Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA), carried out by EUROPOL.
To underline the pivotal role of the CCWP in this domain, the Dutch presidency worked to ensure that Customs authorities were better engaged in the decision-making by senior justice officials. This led to the closer involvement of Customs in the development of joint activities in the fight against organized crime, in the context of EMPACT’s priorities.
The fight against excise fraud remains an important issue for the EU. Not only does excise fraud pose a threat to the EU’s financial interests, it is often linked to organized crime. The CCWP dedicated a substantial part of its time to discussing ways to tackle this particular type of fraud, and decided on new operations that would be organized.
OLAF presented the main actions that had taken place and that were still ongoing in the fight against cigarette smuggling and other forms of illicit trade in tobacco products. The WCO also presented its ongoing activities in this area.
Ensuring the exchange of information between EU Member States’ appropriate bodies is an important factor for making law enforcement cooperation work. A major theme in the Dutch presidency was to improve data exchange between Customs and tax authorities, both at the national and EU levels.
During a meeting gathering Directors General of Customs, tackling cross-border tax fraud and value-added tax (VAT) fraud was discussed. As a follow up, two joint groups of Customs and tax experts were established: the first one will look into combatting VAT fraud when goods are imported into one Member State while VAT is due in another; and the second one will examine VAT fraud related to e-commerce transactions, especially when it comes to returned goods.
In total, the CCWP met 10 times during the Dutch presidency and many topics not covered in this article were also discussed, from the development of a Customs law enforcement training catalogue, to the creation of a roadmap for enhancing information exchange (including interoperability solutions), to governance issues pertaining to the CCWP itself. In the end, it is not the presidency that makes the CCWP successful – the presidency is only there to facilitate its work, while the involvement of EU Member States ensures its success.
In the six months of the Dutch presidency, a number of project groups comprising different Member States started working on tackling risks in areas concerning excise, cash smuggling, firearms, and small parcels. On 1 July 2016, the Slovak Republic took over the rotating presidency with an ambitious agenda to continue the work initiated under the Dutch presidency, based on a common agreement between members of the trio. During the Slovak, and later the Maltese presidency, enhancing cooperation between Customs authorities and other law enforcement agencies in combatting cross-border terrorism will again be at the forefront of the CCWP’s agenda.