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Algirdas Šemeta

EU Commissioner for Taxation and Customs Union, Audit and Anti-Fraud

"Customs cooperation at the Eastern borders"

High-level seminar on customs cooperation in the EU Eastern neighbourhood

Brussels, 20 October 2011

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,

The Polish presidency of the EU kindly invited me to address this high-level seminar on customs cooperation in the EU Eastern neighbourhood; I found it a welcome opportunity to follow up on our common reflections at the seminar in Budapest in April. Unfortunately, at short notice, my presence is required in Brussels today to attend to pressing Commission business. I therefore sincerely regret not being able to be with you this time.

Recently released statistics clearly confirm the upward trend for trade between the EU and the Eastern Partnership countries; since the year 2000, its share of the total EU trade has doubled. Although energy continues to make up a large share of EU imports, most of the trade across these borders is made up of goods transported by road and rail.

Closer customs cooperation is important for two main reasons:

Firstly, customs must make it possible for legitimate trading opportunities to continue to expand. The Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement negotiations between the EU and several Eastern neighbours; Russia’s expected membership of the WTO; and the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are all important developments; they provide an opportunity for customs in the entire region to modernise and converge, and thereby contribute to economic integration and growth.

Secondly, customs must be able to tackle critical challenges: in terms of security; product safety; and IPR infringements; on top of fighting smuggling and fiscal fraud.

The seminar in Budapest was successful in establishing an ambitious agenda for cooperation. In Cracow, you have an opportunity to take the Budapest agenda one step forward: by focusing on implementation.

You will all recall the three strategic priorities agreed in Budapest:

  • Firstly, developing safe and fluid trade lanes; on the basis of operator reliability and compliance; faster procedures; supported by appropriate IT

  • Secondly, promoting risk management systems to detect and contain illicit trade and to strengthen the fight against fraud; and

  • Thirdly, investing in customs modernisation through convergence of legislation and procedures and the provision of appropriate infrastructure and equipment.

These priorities fully reflect those of the Strategic Frameworks for Customs Cooperation agreed between the EU and Russia at the end of last year. Similarly, a Strategic Framework along the same lines was at the top of the agenda when I visited Moldova last week. These Strategic Frameworks – and others to come - establish clear objectives for the coming years that we are committed to implement.

Currently, the Strategic Frameworks are being elaborated with countries directly neighbouring the EU. Meanwhile, I welcome the Polish initiative to invite all other Eastern Partners to identify cooperation priorities. In this way, and in line with the Budapest agenda, you may, at the seminar, consider extending the approach beyond the direct EU borders.

At this stage, allow me a few remarks on each of the three specific themes that you will be discussing in Cracow:

First, on exchanges of information:

Enhancing exchanges of information is indispensable if we want to strengthen risk management and fight smuggling and fraud more effectively. In June this year, the European Commission presented a specific Action Plan for the fight of smuggling of in particular cigarettes at the EU Eastern Border. Exchanges of information with neighbouring countries are an important component of the Action Plan. I believe that the main task for the Cracow seminar is to determine how to organise exchanges of information in practice; how to take account of specific priorities such as cigarette smuggling and valuation fraud; and how to ensure an adequate legal basis.

Second, the extension of the Common Transit to the entire region is a very ambitious objective, which the EU is determined to pursue. Success will depend on sustaining the overall reliability and trustworthiness of the system in the longer term. This requires concentrated efforts and commitment, nationally and internationally. There are great potential benefits in terms of smooth trade and customs efficiency; by far worth the effort.

Finally, concerning customs modernisation strategies, I recognise that much depends on the national reform agenda, for which each country is responsible. But we can learn from one another, about what works and what doesn't; and there are possibilities for financial and technical support in developing and implementing focused strategies. I would urge you to discuss the practical ways and means, such as partnerships and twinnings, to advance on this front.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Throughout the Eastern neighbourhood of the EU, there are important transformations affecting customs authorities. I hope that the Cracow seminar will bring clarity and focus to the ongoing process of deepening customs cooperation in line with the conclusions we reached in Budapest. The European Commission, DG TAXUD and OLAF, is fully committed to this effort. I am also convinced that EU Member States will actively engage in helping to implement our agreed priorities and make them a success.

Through better cooperation we can significantly improve our chances to respond effectively to challenges as they evolve. Let me therefore conclude by thanking Polish customs and the city of Cracow for their dedication in organising this seminar. I wish you a fruitful seminar and look forward to hearing about its outcome.

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