For the policy of the European Community, cooperation at international level between the custom authorities is an important tool for providing a balance between the necessary trade liberalisation and the increasing international trade with the world's large trading partners. This cooperation should help customs authorities to use new instruments or increase the efficiency in existing tools for the control of the trade flows and the fight against fraud and illegal activities.
In coherence with this policy, the Customs Cooperation and Mutual Administrative Assistance Agreements, allow the parties to put the necessary tools for customs cooperation in place. For the benefit of world trade and international assistance to fight against customs fraud, the European Union has signed customs cooperation and mutual administrative assistance agreements (Korea, Canada, Hong Kong, US, India, China and Japan).
The European Union also has Partnership and Co-operation Agreements with a number of countries, including Russia and Ukraine, which cover customs co-operation and include a protocol on mutual administrative assistance.
What is in the Agreements on customs co-operation and mutual assistance in customs matters?
The agreements are part of the European Community's strategy vis-à-vis third countries as regards customs co-operation. They focus on strengthened co-operation of customs authorities with a view
- to creating a level playing field for economic operators and
- to exchanging information on customs legislation and customs rules as early as possible.
They provide also for the possibility to exchange information on technical assistance granted to third countries with a view to improving these actions. The agreements specify also that both sides shall strive for simplification and harmonisation of customs procedures, taking into account the work done by international organisations like for example the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). They stipulate that both sides shall cooperate as regards the computerisation of customs procedures and formalities with the aim of facilitating trade between them.
The agreements contain also a chapter on mutual assistance in customs matters, which lay down under which circumstances and how customs authorities can exchange data relating to breaches of customs legislation and fraud cases. The rules have to be strictly applied. Moreover, data protection rules have to be applied and the confidentiality of information has to be respected.
The existing Customs Cooperation agreements provide also for the possibility
- to expand their scope and
- to increase the levels of customs co-operation.
The Contracting Parties may enlarge the scope of the Agreement by mutual consent in order to supplement the areas of cooperation on specific areas: The European Community has formally expanded the customs co-operation agreement with the United States by introducing efficient and effective control measures to improve the security of transatlantic maritime transport of containers. The expansion of the agreement on 22 April 2004 to cover co-operation on CSIand related matters, striving for the right balance between security and facilitation, shows the possibility for an expansion of the scope of the agreement is indeed necessary as the area of customs co-operation and the role of customs are constantly evolving.
There is a possibility to maintain pre existing bilateral agreements as long as they are not in contradiction with Community competences and the Customs Cooperation and Mutual Administrative Assistance Agreements. The provisions of the latter, shall take precedence over the provisions of any bilateral agreement on customs cooperation and mutual administrative assistance which have been or may be concluded between individual Member States and the contracting party insofar as the provisions of the latter are incompatible with those of these Agreements.
How are the Agreements on customs co-operation and mutual assistance in customs matters implemented?
Each agreement establishes a Joint Customs Co-operation Committee which consists of representatives of the customs authorities of the Contracting Parties, i.e. representatives of the third party competent services (i.e. the Canadian Border Services Agency), the European Commission and of the customs authorities of Member States.
The Joint Committee has to ensure that the agreement is correctly applied and has examined all questions arising from its application, for example all issues relating to problems concerning the application of customs rules in trade (classification of goods, origin problems etc) or concerning future developments of customs legislation (computerisation; changes to the Customs Code). It serves also as a forum to discuss and prepare meetings relating to international organisations like the WCO.
The Joint Committee can adopt decisions and recommendations to strengthen co-operation or to strive for the solution of problems encountered in the application of customs rules.
The formal Joint Customs Co-operation Committee meetings are mostly used to enshrine joint positions and to formally agree a common approach. In between the meetings, both sides co-operate closely through informal channels and also in the margins of the many international meetings.