Our men in Brussels
A keener focus on the special position of customs authorities, more specific attention for strategic customs topics in the Council, and increased awareness of the necessity of modern customs supervision. According to Luc de Blieck and Kees Beaufort, these are important points and the Netherlands should devote extra attention to them during its temporary Presidency of the EU. “We will be using these six months to achieve the maximum impact. The period is too short to allow for major changes, but we can use it to steer the European course slightly.”
As President of the Council of Ministers of the EU, the Netherlands fulfils the role of honest broker, in which it carefully weighs the interests and standpoints of all Member States. Despite the neutral position, our country will be able to exercise some influence in Brussels during the first six months of 2016, by, for example, putting topics – considered essential in the opinion of the Dutch – on the various agendas. This also applies for customs affairs, as Beaufort and De Blieck are aware. They chair the Working Party on Customs Union and the Customs Cooperation Working Party, respectively – which prepare the files, in particular, for the Competitiveness Council (where it mostly involves customs union and trade facilitation) and the Justice and Home Affairs Council (where the focus lies on the protection of society).
“One of the problems is that Customs is not adequately visible at the strategic level within the EU”, says Beaufort. “Our working parties make decisions, generally when consensus is reached, and these decisions then become formalities for the Councils. As the executive body, we don’t always get a spot in the limelight during the regulatory process.” This can be cumbersome, at the very least, explains De Blieck: “In Europe, laws and regulations are formulated in various policy areas, and these laws and regulations must eventually be enforced by the Member States’ customs organisations. After all, we don’t merely have our classic tax duties, but are also utilised in the area of social safety and security. The question of whether or not all of this suits our philosophy and working methods is not always taken into account. At the same time, we are in fact key players in the movement of goods across the EU border. We want to try to do something about this: clarify what is possible and impossible for us. Customs cannot simply take on everything directed at it; our budgets and capacities have boundaries.”
Another overarching theme of the Dutch EU Presidency for Beaufort and De Blieck: guaranteeing continuity in the way that serious topics are dealt with by the mentioned Councils. “As President, you cannot really put your mark on decision-making processes; six months simply aren’t enough”, explains Beaufort. “For this reason, we consult regularly with our predecessor, Luxembourg, and with our successors, like Slovakia. We don’t do this so we can push the Dutch standpoints forward, but actually to ensure that we can plan over a term of several Presidencies – in the interest of all Member States. Themes that deserve attention will therefore receive attention over a longer period of time. Large ICT projects, for example, and the accompanying investments, or the relationship between customs and other border control authorities.”
Our country attaches great value to the realisation of a modern customs organisation. De Blieck: “A customs organisation that not only looks at matters based on its own enforcement perspective, but also views matters from the perspective of trade and industry. For example, a customs organisation that also has contemporary and simple procedures in place – tailored to the logistical and commercial reality – and schedules inspections at logical intervals in transport chains. A customs organisation that also uses the internal management systems and control mechanisms already implemented by the actual businesses. This way you can actually impose levies, and ensure safety and security, and also facilitate trade. As the Netherlands, we advocate this approach expressly.”
“Our customs department and numerous counterparts have already made quite some progress in this regard, but not all those involved embrace this way of thinking and doing”, says Beaufort. “Some are opposed: some Member States and specific European authorities are far more focused on the path of hardcore fraud prevention and want to ensure that every last cent of their own resources is brought in by the EU countries. In their opinion, the interests of trade and industry are not the most important. We have to deal with this field of tension on a daily basis.”
“As the Netherlands, we have spent years striving for the right balance between control and facilitation”, Beaufort continues. “We actually have no choice in the matter, considering the fact that we have two main ports in our territory. We recently fine-tuned our vision for customs supervision in the near future, under the general heading Pushing Boundaries*. We want to develop this general view further in the next few years and want to implement it in actual practice. This process may not be delayed due to the results of the negotiation tables in Brussels. A standard which represents the European average, is generally a step ahead for many countries, but this is not usually the case for the Netherlands. New arrangements on procedures and the implementation thereof will be quite different at the port of Rotterdam, compared to, let’s say, a port in Lithuania or Slovenia. For example, if it is stated that 10% of all incoming containers must be subjected to a physical inspection... This won’t be feasible in Rotterdam, due to the unique massive scale. Therefore we also promote that national circumstances be taken into consideration – overarching control strategies should not be set in stone.”
According to Beaufort and De Blieck, attention for the local situation is also required, when it comes to sanctioning. “Now that customs laws and regulations have been harmonised by way of the Union Customs Code, a call is heard, here and there, for customs to intervene in a uniform manner everywhere when companies go in the wrong”, De Blieck explains. “The Netherlands – in any case, more in terms of compliance-oriented supervision than sanctioning – is not a supporter of this apparently logical next step. For us, more factors play a part: what type of company is involved, which activities are being carried out, and was the transgression deliberate? We stand for a certain degree of proportionality. A small business which accidentally does something wrong, simply due to lack of experience, must not, in our opinion, be dealt with in the same way as a large company that violates systematically and deliberately.”
Beaufort: “All in all, the subject matter is extremely complex. In any event, sanctioning is still a national competency. You may wonder whether uniform punishments are actually needed. After all, we also have a European directive in place for the protection of financial interests, which largely covers intentional errors on the part of market parties.”
More powerful trade lobbying
Beaufort, De Blieck, and many other Dutch customs colleagues will be working hard on their networking in the coming period, and are looking for compromises to combat unnecessary European regulatory hysteria. “Capturing everything in legal text does fit well within the overall concept of a harmonised Customs Union”, says Beaufort. “However, it quickly turns into regulations on top of regulations. This does not have a positive effect on the EU’s position as a competitive player in the global trade arena.”
“We will try to steer the European course in a positive direction over the next few months”, De Blieck concludes. “It would help if trade and industry also took a stand in Brussels, for the interests of the business community, by lobbying at the European Parliament, for example. This does take place, but in our opinion it could often be more effective at an earlier stage.”
* Please also refer to the article ‘Pushing Boundaries in 40 minutes’ included elsewhere in this edition.