Media outlets have given major news coverage to the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the European Customs Union. The abolition of internal customs duties was enshrined in the founding treaties of the European Community (1957): the great single market, envisioned by the fathers of integration, was to bring Member States’ economies closer, to eventually contribute to the development of the “common European home” – at a political level – after the divisions and the horrors of the Second World War.
Pierre Moscovici, Commissioner for economic and financial affairs, taxation and customs, said: “The Customs Union is a tremendous and unique accomplishment. It allows Europeans to reap the full benefits of the internal market, keeping trade flowing and consumers safe.” The abolishment of customs tariffs within EU member States facilitates the circulation of workers, goods, capitals and services, whilst protecting European citizens and businesses from the “unregulated invasion” of foreign products, except those deemed useful or necessary or simply attractive by European markets. Put in these terms, it may seem obvious. But at a time of “a priori” Euro-scepticism and the erection new walls “no matter what”, the value of the abolishment of customs duties risks being trivialized in form and underestimated in terms of its content. Moreover, as was recently pointed out in Brussels, the establishment of the Customs Union in 1968, “marked the first decisive step towards the EU becoming the world’s largest trading bloc, with the 28 customs administrations of the EU acting as though they were one entity.” Over the past fifty years the Customs Union “has developed into a cornerstone of our Single Market, keeping EU borders safe and protecting our citizens from prohibited and dangerous goods such as weapons and drugs. It also facilitates an ever-growing portion of global trade.” EU customs handled 16% of the world’s commerce in 2017.
Thanks to the abolishment of customs tariffs all goods can circulate freely, whether produced in the EU or outside its borders, while duty on goods from outside the EU is generally paid when they first enter the EU. At the same time, “customs prevent products from entering the Union that pose a risk to the safety or health of EU citizens; they stop goods that have been trafficked and smuggled or present a danger to the environment and European cultural heritage, or goods which undermine the financial interests of the EU and its Member States.” In order to ensure its functioning EU Member Countries use a common set of rules, based on the so-called Union Customs Code, upgraded in 2013 and applied since 2016. Nowadays, while neo-protectionist winds are in the offing, with the US President ( the EU’s major trade partner), who has started to impose tariffs on EU products – which obviously has a set of limits and weaknesses – the Customs Union could highlight its manifold benefits to Europe and beyond, whilst warning EU Member States that they should acknowledge the importance and the added value it brought to the single market in terms of economic growth and the protection of European citizens and workers. Once the Euro-sceptic lenses are removed, this will be seen in all its clarity.