European Union


Free trade in Europe

Thanks to the EU customs union:

  • customs duties at the borders between EU countries are a thing of the past
  • we have a uniform system of customs duties on imports from outside the EU. 

Customs officers both keep trade flowing, and perform a wide range of tasks to protect Europeans.

The customs union is a single trading area where all goods circulate freely, whether made in the EU or imported from outside. A Finnish mobile phone can be dispatched to Hungary without any duty or customs controls.

Duty on goods from outside the EU – say TVs from South Korea – is generally paid when they first enter the EU, but after that there is nothing more to pay and no more checks.

Despite this, customs work in the EU remains vital, given the sheer volume of incoming goods. EU customs services

  • handle nearly 16% of total world imports – over 2 bn tonnes of goods a year
  • process well over 270 million declarations annually.

How customs protect EU citizens

Customs protection includes

  • enforcing rules that protect the environment and health & safety (e.g. refusing entry to contaminated foodstuffs or potentially dangerous electrical appliances)
  • ensuring exports of sensitive technology (which could be used to make nuclear or chemical weapons) are legitimate
  • tackling counterfeit goods and piracy – in the interests of health and safety, as well as the jobs of those who work for legitimate manufacturers
  • ensuring anyone travelling with large amounts of cash (or equivalent) is not laundering money or evading tax
  • helping police and immigration services fight trafficking in people, drugs, pornography and firearms – all factors in organised crime and terrorism
  • protecting endangered species, e.g. checking trade in ivory, protected animals, birds and plants
  • protecting European cultural heritage by watching for smuggled art treasures.

Preventing fraud

Another major task of EU customs is to tackle fraud, which deprives governments of tax revenue for vital public spending, in particular:

  • false certificates of origin claiming that goods come from a country subject to a lower import tariff
  • fraudulent VAT declarations and payments reporting fictitious trade
  • evasion of excise duties on items such as cigarettes.

Data on trade flows

EU customs officers also collect statistics as a basis for:

  • deciding whether goods are competing unfairly with EU products
  • detecting economic trends.

Manuscript updated in November 2014

This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series

See also

EU institutions and bodies

Funding opportunities

Publications, newsletters and statistics


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