Looking into the crystal ball

More than 200 customs and compliance managers from the public and private domain attended the first ODB Event. Together they peeked into the future.

Can the Dutch regulators on goods and the industry further improve their business relationship? What developments in the global trade and logistics are relevant to our country? For example, what challenges await us now the British are leaving the EU and the Americans are threatening to pull out of a number of free trade agreements? These, and other pressing questions, were discussed during the first ODB Event, which was attended by more than 200 customs and compliance managers from the public and private domain.

The event, which was held in Rotterdam on Friday afternoon the 10th of March, was all about collaboration. The meeting was set up by the Customs-Business Consultation forum (ODB)*, the organisation in which various enforcement services** and umbrella organisations related to the shipping and logistics industry work together. With the aim of streamlining government monitoring of EU cross-border goods flows while simultaneously optimising logistics processes. Across the borders, the Netherlands is often admired for the way in which matters are organised in this area, according to Chairman Arthur van Dijk (TLN FENEX). He did emphasise, however, that this does not mean we can get complacent. After all, in modern logistics things have to be done faster and faster; ‘order today, delivered tomorrow’ has now become obsolete. That raises the question of what gains can still be achieved regarding the cooperation between government and businesses.

Importance of trade agreements
During the first two plenary presentations of the afternoon, two government officials explained how their organisations are working on behalf of the interests of the Netherlands as a distribution country. Nanja Piek of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs kicked off with an illuminating story about trade agreements. Her team works on achieving excellent international relations and contributed to a large number of trade agreements that came into being in recent years. And there are more in the pipeline, because there are ongoing negotiations with more than 30 countries and regional free trade areas. Great news for a trading nation like ours. Sadly, there are also less rosy developments in store. Brexit is forthcoming, and, since Trump became president, the language coming from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean has become increasingly protectionist – with possible consequences for the conversations about TTIP. So what will all this mean for the Dutch trade interests? Well, that is like reading tea leaves, states Piek. She recommends that both the government and entrepreneurs create lists of opportunities and threats based on possible scenarios.

Effect of Customs activities
Frank Heijmann, head of trade relations of Dutch Customs, then focused on the fact that the ODB was recently registered as National Committee on Trade Facilitation with the World Trade Organisation on behalf of Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Ploumen. This is in recognition of the fact that the forum itself actively contributes to the main objective of the Trade Facilitation Agreement of the WTO: the removal of trade barriers.

Heijmann also discussed the Ecorys investigation that was commissioned by the ODB into the effect of the actions of customs authorities on the economic prosperity of countries: The economic benefits of Customs. The results of this measurement clearly indicate that there is a link between the two. When customs agencies carry out their checks efficiently, for example by partly relying on existing proprietary safeguards, and continuously invest in smarter IT solutions, this will be more likely to lead to an increase in national income and trading volumes.

Government performance in jeopardy?
Thematically, Heijmann’s talk seamlessly tied in with a panel discussion with various prominent ODB members. They talked with each other and the audience about the question of the extent to which enforcement agencies determine the prosperity of the Netherlands. It was concluded that the high position that our country always holds in international logistics rankings is partly due to well-functioning national regulators. Nevertheless, there were some points of concern, such as the instability of IT systems, which is often causing problems for the electronic communication between Customs and the industry. There were also reservations with regard to the extensive range of tasks Dutch Customs has to carry out, in view of increasing public spending cuts. This produced a number of follow-up questions: will the inspection services still be able to carry out their core tasks efficiently and effectively while offering a high level of service? Can businesses and industries contribute to a better government performance? And how far are entrepreneurs prepared to go in this respect?

Naturally, the answer to that last question will differ from company to company. The panel members believe that trade and industry will be quite willing to enter into a serious collaboration with, for example, Dutch Customs. Especially given the openness and mutual trust experienced within the ODB.

Killing two birds with one stone
Royal FloraHolland is evidence of the fact that there are private parties who are willing to invest in closer ties with public partners. Edwin Wenink, programme director at the cooperative flower auction, explained how his organisation worked closely together with Customs in the European research project CORE (see also the article ‘Safe logistical chains within reach’ in the previous issue of Customs NL inSight). It means that the company was able to optimise its internal supply chain from the cultivation grounds in Kenya to the distribution centres in Aalsmeer, while Customs was able to examine the same chain for its own monitoring activities and remove administrative barriers. So they killed two birds with one stone, and this may encourage other companies to follow the example of Wenink’s business group.

Better prepared for the future
Next, the attendees split up for a number of break-out sessions, dedicated to a variety of subjects. At the end of the event, it turned out that there had not been quite enough time to discuss everything. People would have liked to talk more about the new Customs Decision Management System, for example, and about the trends within e-commerce, and the introduction of the Union Customs Code. That alone made it clear that the ODB Event had not been organised in vain. As Managing Director of Dutch Customs Aly van Berckel stated: “This meeting gives us the opportunity to look at the developments heading our way from our mutual perspectives and formulate possible answers together. This way, both of us – both the government and the industry – are better prepared for the future. I therefore hope that this seminar will not have been a one-off event but the start of a great tradition.” So who knows: until next year?

* In collaboration with the Rotterdam School of Management.

** In addition to Dutch Customs also includes: the Human Environment & Transport Inspectorate (IL&T) and the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA).

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