Brussels, 13 December 2013
Commission proposes a common approach to violations of EU customs law
Today the Commission proposed a framework to harmonise customs infringements and align the 28 national sets of related sanctions. The proposed Directive sets out acts that must be considered infringements of the Union's customs rules, as well as a framework for imposing sanctions when these occur. The customs union is the foundation of the EU. Since the beginning of the Internal Market, EU customs legislation has been fully harmonised in a single legal act. However, the consequences of violating the common rules vary across the customs union. They depend on the 28 different legal orders and administrative or judicial traditions of the Member States. In the absence of a common approach, there is a patchwork of responses to rule-breakers.
The outcome is legal uncertainty for businesses and possible competitive distortions in the Internal Market. It means vulnerabilities in revenue collection and weaknesses in enforcing policies such as consumer protection and agriculture in relation to import and export of goods. It also raises questions about uniformity of the customs union, which is a key obligation of the EU as a WTO Member. Therefore, today's proposal will provide more uniformity in the way that breaches to EU customs law are treated across the Member States.
Algirdas Šemeta, Commissioner responsible for Customs Union, said: "There is no point in a solid, single set of rules if we do not also have a common approach to responding when they are broken. We must ensure that EU customs law is respected to the same high standards across the Single Market. Today's proposal will create a more level playing field for businesses, a more secure market for citizens and a more uniformly managed customs union."
Currently Member States have widely differing definitions for customs infringements, and apply different types and levels of sanctions. For example, sanctions for certain infringements range from small fines in some Member States, to imprisonment in others. The financial threshold for deciding whether an infringement is criminal or not ranges from €266 to €50 000, according the country it occurs in. National time limits for sanctioning customs offences also vary widely, from 1 to 30 years, while some Member States have no time limit at all.
For traders, these differences create legal uncertainties and unfair advantages for those who breach the law in a more lenient Member State. This can also lead to distortions in the Single Market if trade is artificially diverted to make use of legal loopholes. Moreover, it can result in different interpretation of what constitutes 'compliant and trustworthy' economic operators, who are allowed to benefit from EU-wide facilitations and simplifications.
To address this problem, today's proposal sets down a common list of acts that constitute breach of EU customs rules. These are differentiated by the level of severity, and some are categorised as to whether there was intent or negligence. Examples of the listed infringements include non-payment of customs duties, failure to declare goods to customs, falsifying documents to obtain preferential treatment, removing goods from customs supervision without authorisation, or failing to present the proper documentation. Inciting, aiding and abetting an infringement is also punishable. The proposal then sets out a scale of effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions to be applied, depending on the infringement. These range from a fine of 1% of the value of goods for inadvertent or administrative errors, to a fine of 30% of the value of the goods (or €45 000 if not related to specific goods) for the most serious breaches. When applying sanctions, Member States must also consider the nature and circumstances of the infringement, including the frequency and duration, whether a "trusted trader" is involved, and the amount of evaded duties. Harmonised time limits are set for pursuing breaches, and administrative procedures will have to be suspended if a criminal procedure is opened on the same case.
The proposal thus bridges the gap between different legal regimes through a common platform of rules, based on the obligations laid down in the Union Customs Code. The result will be a more uniform and effective application of EU customs law in every part of the EU.
The EU customs union of six founding Member States was formed in 1968. EU customs legislation has been fully harmonised since 1992, which is today implemented by 28 Member State administrations. A new directly applicable Regulation - the Union Customs Code (UCC) – was agreed this year, which contains the rules and procedures for customs throughout the EU from 2016. Among the improvements that will be introduced with the new Code are measures to complete the shift by Customs to a paperless, fully electronic environment, and provisions to reinforce swifter Customs procedures for reliable traders (Authorised Economic Operators). Under the UCC, EU customs procedures will be better fit for modern-day trading needs and challenges. Today's proposal will ensure that violations of these common rules are properly and more uniformly sanctioned throughout the Union.
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