ODB: cooperation for the good of the country
For over a decade now, Customs and the trade, industry, and logistics sectors have consulted by way of the Customs-Business Consultation forum (ODB). Chaired by Customs, the ODB discusses the traffic of goods crossing the external EU borders and everything related thereto. Customs officers Ron Roelofs and Martijn van Kruining, both acting as secretary for the ODB, have their story to tell. “Our common goal is to produce as sound a balance as possible between enforcement and trade facilitation.”
Individual companies do not participate in the ODB. “That would be counterproductive, as such companies would mainly be there to act in their own interest,” Roelofs explains. “We only talk with representatives of umbrella organisations. All trades are represented, including forwarders, carriers, terminal operators, and transhipment companies, on the road, in the air, and at sea. These are umbrella organisations active in so-called EU external border customs logistics that operate at the national level, such as ACN, evofenedex, and TLN/Fenex. SMEs participate by way of VNO-NCW. Equality and openness form the basis of the consultations.”
Talking about customs logistics and handling
The ODB conducts a general strategic consultation three times a year, discussing national and international topics touching upon the responsibilities, duties, and interests of both Customs and the business sector, such as logistical hurdles and expected bottlenecks arising from changes in legislation or working processes. In addition, three working groups meet up four times a year for sub-consultations. One working group addresses current topics and legislative issues (ODB Current), one discusses topics relevant for the medium term (ODB MT), and one considers IT. The ODB IT mainly addresses the automated Customs and business sector systems in use for mutual communications and for the submission and receipt of declarations, for example considering modifications required due to legislative changes. Software developers are also represented during these consultations. In addition, temporary working groups exist to address topics requiring intensive attention for a short term, such as the Brexit or changes in the e-commerce regulations.
Roelofs: “Such working groups allow for focussing on a single topic and for working in a smarter, more structured, and more rapid manner. It is also possible to involve other parties. Ferry operators, for example, had a place in the Brexit working group, even though they are usually not represented.” Van Kruining: “The most important result this provided in the context of the Brexit is that the entire business sector became aware of the fact that they needed to start preparing. Brexit had been on the entire sector’s lips ever since 2016. We, as Customs, were constantly urging companies to start preparing for the worst-case scenarios, using all sorts of channels. However, most companies kept on believing that everything would turn out fine. Only once the Brexit working group became active, we could really press the urgent nature of the issue via the umbrella organisations. In turn, we became aware of the sorts of companies that would be hit by the Brexit, allowing Customs to start preparing itself.”
Consultations can, if required, also serve as something of a damage table. For participants may also discuss the bottlenecks they run into. Van Kruining: “To give an example, the European Commission and the European Union set rather strict IT deadlines. We jointly discuss how to meet these legal obligations. This fosters quite a bit of understanding among most sectors and companies. When companies state that deadlines are too tight to comply with new legislation in time, we can take this into account and check what is possible.”
Such sound public-private cooperation is definitely unusual. “We often hear that the ODB is rather extraordinary,” van Kruining says. “Many countries do not feature this direct contact with the business sector.” Roelofs: “We sometimes give presentations to foreign visitors. They always wonder how we do things, how things work here. I personally think this is mostly connected to our polder model. The Netherlands is situated mostly below sea level, so we learned early on that we need to cooperate to keep our feet dry. There has historically been broad support for initiating a dialogue. And secondly, over 30% of all goods destined for Europe enters the continent via the Netherlands. So we’re talking massive volumes. Trade and distribution generate many profits and jobs. Which is good for the entirety of the Netherlands. So everyone has an interest in everything running smoothly and any bottlenecks being removed quickly. Other customs services are always keen to learn from our strategies.”
Listening to each other’s wishes
Trade facilitation is a duty assigned to Customs directly by the government. “We need to conduct supervision but should hamper the business sector as little as possible when doing so,” van Kruining explains. “This is possible only by entering into a dialogue, by listening to each other’s wishes.”
There are many initiatives, also in the field of IT, that are based on the needs of the business sector. Roelofs: “Companies wish to themselves decide when Customs should inspect their containers, for example. We are therefore developing a tool allowing the company to indicate when it would best suit them for us to conduct a physical inspection. Of course, this only applies to the regular inspections. Whenever we find reason for directly inspecting goods, we will do so. We do not need to render account for such action.” Van Kruining: “There is no real advantage to such a tool for Customs, but we’re considering the greater interest here. One of our objectives is to be and remain one of the best customs services in the world. And this also requires continuous investment and maintaining a reputation.”
This attitude engenders appreciation among and support from the trade organisations, the two secretaries find. Van Kruining: “A few years ago, the business sector was afraid Customs was dealing with excessive pressure and expectations, also from the political world. A number of the organisations active in the ODB at that time submitted a letter to State Secretary for Finance, indicating that they had full confidence in Customs and that we play a crucial part in the logistics process, but also that investments were required to maintain this high level. That was the starting call for the ODB Strategic Development Agenda.” Roelofs: “Dutch Customs really always is in the top tier of lists marking the best customs services in the world, such as the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index. This should be seen as a sign of appreciation from the business sector – national, and global. And such a ranking is in turn beneficial to the competitiveness of and business climate in the Netherlands.”
Getting things done together
The participating trade organisations naturally serve as the mouthpiece of their membership, but at the same time also form a sounding board for Customs. Van Kruining: “While we can come up with all sorts of ideas behind our desks, if the business sector tells us something is impossible or inopportune, we better think of something different or change the timing. This will cause everything to run much more smoothly, which, in the end, also benefits us. At times, certain things simply have to be done, such as the implementation of new legislation. But in those cases, we help each other out. This is the core strength of the ODB: getting things done together, with respect for each other.”
The ODB has been registered with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as the National Committee on Trade Facilitation for the Netherlands. The designation of such committees derives from the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement. This is why, depending on the agenda items in question, representatives of other government organisations, such as the Ministries of Finance, Foreign Affairs, or Economic Affairs and Climate, or the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority or the Human Environment and Transport Directorate, also participate.