“Our interest: getting companies in motion for Brexit”

Joren Schep of RVO.nl and customs officer Ian Koster on the importance of the Brexit desk. “It is essential that the government refers to a single, central communication channel.”

The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO.nl), which supports companies doing business abroad, opened the Brexit desk in 2018. This knowledge portal gathers important information about the impending departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This includes the inevitable customs formalities that many market players will have to deal with – many for the first time. RVO.nl and Customs therefore have a common aim: prompting entrepreneurs to seriously prepare themselves for the things to come.

“Like many others the outcome of the Brexit referendum took us by surprise”, acknowledges Joren Schep (left in the photo), advisor on international entrepreneurship at RVO.nl. “We’d better brace ourselves for an avalanche of calls, we thought. But that didn’t happen. This was in sharp contrast to what we had seen previously, when the sanctions against Russia were imposed. But that was an acute crisis, while Brexit was surrounded by many uncertainties from the outset. Together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we had to devise a communication strategy. Were we to push the business community to get moving, or should we stay calm and take a ‘wait and see’ approach? On the one hand you want to inform companies, while on the other you don’t want to cause unrest. It wasn’t until after the EU had received a negotiating mandate from the member states and the first draft agreements had been published that things got any better. This resulted in a parliamentary letter with a clear message on 29 March 2018 – when it turned out that the UK was going for a relatively hard option: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. At the same time, we made a package of instruments available, including the Brexit desk and the Brexit Impact Scan. The tone was: yes, you’re going to have a lot to deal with, but we’re there to help."

Closely attuned
“For us, it’s important to continue to act in line with the government-wide communication, precisely because questions from businesses concern more than customs matters alone,” says Ian Koster (right in the photo), programme manager at the Customs Brexit team. “If you spread information across too many channels, it causes even more confusion. Consistently referring to the Brexit desk gives you a much greater reach as a government. There you can obtain up-to-date information on the impact of Brexit on trading with the UK. The Customs site refers to the desk and vice versa. And if you call the Brexit desk with a specialist question about customs matters, you’ll be transferred to the Customs Information Line.

Schep: “Previously, we had little direct contact with Customs. The need to work together on Brexit topics has created a common basis. We’re becoming more and more attuned to each other. Because we often work together, we now know how the service is organised and which customs procedures entrepreneurs may have to deal with.”

Mounting interest
“The Brexit desk is just one of our instruments,” continues Schep. “There’s currently a nationwide media campaign running on Brexit, complete with radio infomercials and messages on social media. Since last year we have also organised road shows and other events with the Royal Association MKB Nederland – an organisation for small and medium-sized enterprises – and the Chamber of Commerce. At these meetings you learn what’s going on among the target group – and we share these stories again via the Brexit desk. We also join in with events of trade associations, such as the entrepreneurs’ organisation for the technological industry FME. Sometimes we talk to entrepreneurs who know nothing at all about customs formalities. They come up with questions like: ‘We trade with the UK; do we have to pay import duties after Brexit? And how does that work?’ Some companies are completely blank at this stage. But whichever way you look at it, deal or no-deal, they can’t escape customs formalities. So start making preparations as soon as possible, we tell them – and you could have done that a year ago. Recently, this message has come across a little better than before. The number of calls made via the Brexit desk is steadily increasing, and more and more companies are doing the Impact Scan. Whereas the desk at www.brexitloket.nl first settled at an average of forty visits a day, there are now several hundred. But there’s still a substantial percentage that’s still doing nothing.”

“At Customs, we’re currently looking into the reasons for this,” adds Koster. “Of course, political uncertainty doesn’t help. If you still don’t know what kind of Brexit it will be and what it means for your business, I can imagine some might take such a wait-and-see attitude. At the same time, it causes us concern. We’ve written to 73,000 companies doing business with the UK, and for which the changes could have a major impact. Of these, 35,000 will soon be dealing with Customs for the first time. They must ensure that they can register an EORI number (Economic Operators Registration and Identification number) and file a declaration with us, and check whether they need customs permits. We expect many entrepreneurs to hire a forwarder to handle customs formalities. But we can only guess at how big this group is.”

Prepared for the worst
Even if the nature of the work does not change, Customs faces a major challenge, Koster emphasises. “We’ll soon have more customers and more goods under supervision. Such an increase calls for additional staff, all of whom must be given a place to work. Buildings will be added, official cars, computers, scanning equipment, tracking dogs... you name it. We’re also carrying out stress tests on all our service channels in order to be able to cope with any peak load around 29 March.”

Schep: “The fact that Customs sent out a clear signal at an early stage by focusing on staff increases has contributed to the government’s sense of urgency. We at RVO.nl are also prepared for everything, even for a possible run on information in the event of a no-deal. That’s when we expect the phone lines to get red hot."

This interview also appeared in our recently issued overview ‘Dutch Customs in 2018’. Click here to read the full publication.

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