For the past few years, the EU – in the shape of the Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union (DG TAXUD) – has been hard at work shaping Europe’s largest customs change programme in decades. Its scope includes reimagining legislation, processes, data and IT to keep pace with changes in how cross-border trade works and harmonise the way customs agencies operate across the EU. In May 2016 the starting-gun sounded for all EU Member States to start implementing the programme. Under the current schedule, we can expect it to be fully completed by 2025.
I’ve been pretty close to much of the programme, both at a European and national level. And while some observers have commented that a number of Member States are currently behind schedule with implementing the programme, it isn’t hard to see why. A change programme of this magnitude – leaving hardly any core customs processes or systems untouched – requires ambition, vision and lots of planning and manpower, not to mention money. So it’s all the more challenging against a background of budgetary limitations and an ageing customs workforce.
I’ve been reflecting that all of this creates a risk that some Member States might start to see this programme as an EU-mandated change they have to make, and focus on doing the minimum needed to comply. But meeting the new legislative requirements should only be a starting point. Why? Because the challenges of implementing the programme are far outweighed by the benefits it promises to generate.
In fact, the EU customs change programme – and the wide scope of activities it encompasses – open up a one-off, golden opportunity for the Member States to truly reimagine how their respective customs agencies work and the technology they use to support them. For Member States to succeed in looking beyond legal compliance and focusing on the scale of the benefits on offer, I believe three steps need to be taken:
First, find your local niche in the common market. If the various Member States just implemented the bare minimum of the programme, it would make them more alike in terms of their customs capability. In a competitive world – where trade supply chains always find the easiest path between origin and destination – this means some Member States might find themselves losing out on trade volume and all the economic activity that comes with it. Instead, they should recognise their national competitive advantages and build on them, using the components of the EU programme to drive true transformation and gain a competitive edge over other Member States.
Second, recruit new talent. To create the skilled, motivated and engaged customs workforce they’ll need to implement a change programme of this magnitude, ambitious Member States should look to create the right blend of skills and people by combining existing talent and new talent. Whether already working in customs agencies or recruited from outside, the key is to have a professional, committed and talented workforce who’ll help to drive the transformation and keep Member States competitive as trading nations within the EU.
Third, be agile. With a lot of the changes under the programme scheduled for implementation in the next couple of years, time is short. But the deadline is definitely achievable, given a more agile approach to project management and IT development. This will also help to generate tangible value at the earliest possible stage, encouraging both customs employees and the trading community to get behind the programme – supported by an open and honest discussion of the impact of agile methods on trade flows.
The message is clear. In my view, Member States – and their customs agencies – should approach the EU customs change programme as an opportunity for transformation rather than a compliance exercise. Countries that get this right will reap a significant economic uplift, and see their customs agencies become leaders in Europe for many years to come. But while the benefits may be some way off, the time to act to realise them is now.