London calling

In the run-up to Brexit, Rick Ligthart took on the role of temporary customs liaison officer in London. From the beginning of 2021 onwards, Customs will have a Permanent Representation in the UK.

Customs attachés are stationed at various Dutch embassies throughout the world*. Since October 2019, the London embassy has also employed a temporary customs liaison, who is tasked with supporting the embassy staff in customs matters in the run-up to Brexit, among other things. Positive experiences have led to the appointment of a permanent customs representation in the British capital. From 2021, this attaché will mainly focus on a smooth flow of trade with the United Kingdom.**

The placement of a liaison across the Channel was a pilot project to assess whether a more structural customs representation in London was desirable. “Dutch Customs as well as the Dutch Embassy have given a positive recommendation,” says customs officer Rick Ligthart, who holds the temporary position of liaison in London. “According to the ambassador and his staff, the liaison provides for specific customs knowledge which is not available within the embassy’s departments. As a first point of contact, he can quickly give advice and answers to questions raised by embassy staff and representatives of the Dutch business sector about Brexit, for example. He is, of course, able to consult customs colleagues in the Netherlands about this.”

In addition, the customs liaison is tasked with obtaining the most up-to-date information on the possible effects and bottlenecks of Brexit in the customs area – especially for Dutch businesses. This information is obtained, for example, through the extensive collegial network of foreign customs liaisons and attachés in London, whose territory is the UK. An on-site customs attaché also helps to obtain relevant information for the purpose of customs control of illegal activities. And last but not least, an attaché supports Dutch and English businesses if they have any questions about customs procedures between the Netherlands and the UK.

Structural customs representation
“As a liaison, I work closely with the staff of the Dutch embassy,” says Ligthart. “Until 11 March of this year, I visited London on a regular basis, but after that, unfortunately, this was no longer possible due to the corona crisis. In itself, digital conferencing does not pose any problems, but the provision of information through personal contacts is, of course, easier. This situation is undesirable in the longer term. A structural on-site customs representation is therefore considered more efficient and effective by all parties involved.”

A changing relationship
Another factor that plays a role in the choice of a permanent attaché is, of course, that customs cooperation with the UK will soon undergo a lot of changes. Ligthart: “The outcome of the negotiations between the EU and the UK on their new relationship as from 1 January 2021 is not yet fixed. It is still possible that there will be no trade agreement on that date. A number of things are, however, clear. On 31 December 2020, the Brexit-related transition period will end and we will start treating the UK as a third country. There will be an EU external border between the EU and the UK, which means that customs formalities must be completed when goods are transported. This will also increase Customs’ enforcement tasks in respect of the flows of goods to and from the UK.”

Border Operating Model
As from 1 January 2021, customs formalities must also be completed in the UK when goods are transported between the EU and the UK. In mid-July 2020, the United Kingdom published a first document describing the procedures for importing and exporting goods with the EU: the Border Operating Model (BOM). This is a framework model, which is still being developed. The BOM gives an initial interpretation of the operational impact of UK customs legislation. Various customs-related matters will be detailed in the UK in the coming months. Together with colleagues from the Ministry of Finance, Dutch Customs is performing a comprehensive analysis of the Border Operating Model in order to assess the possible impact on its own customs processes, logistics processes and business processes.

Phased implementation
“At present, the structure of the UK border model still raises questions,” Ligthart says. “We regularly receive new information from the UK on how they want to implement customs procedures there. We now know that the UK intends to introduce the new border formalities in phases. Specifically, this means that one part of the customs formalities will enter into force in the UK on 1 January 2021, that another part will enter into force on 1 April 2021 and that the complete package will not be operational until 1 July 2021. In addition, businesses that export goods to and/or import goods from the UK must take into account that they are required to provide data to the UK customs authorities in electronic form. The IT systems necessary for this purpose are still being developed in the UK.”

For example, one of the things a Dutch business needs on 1 January 2021 in order to trade with the UK is a UK EORI number (customs identification number). Ligthart: “At present, it is still unclear whether Dutch businesses can apply for such UK identification number themselves, or whether this is only possible for UK-based businesses. In the latter case, Dutch businesses would have to establish themselves in the UK. But of course, it is also possible for Dutch businesses to have the declarations made by their British customers importing the goods, or by a UK-based customs agent. The availability of sufficient customs agents to deal with the expected increase in customer demand is, however, still a concern.”

Finger on the pulse
“For customs authorities as well as industry associations in the business sector, it is important to keep a finger on the pulse,” Ligthart concludes. “After all, the British procedures for importing and exporting goods with the EU affect logistics and trade with the UK. As major trading partner of the UK, it is the Dutch business sector that has an interest in logistics processes running smoothly.”

* Dutch customs attachés work in the European Union (Brussels; Permanent Representation), the Russian Federation (Moscow), China (Beijing), Singapore and Brazil (Brasilia).

 ** In mid-November it was announced that customs officer Peter van Tienhoven will take up this position. He previously worked as a customs attaché in Hungary.

Information on UK customs procedures and tariffs
General information on importing goods from the EU (or exporting goods to the UK) can be found on the UK government website: https://www.gov.uk/starting-to-import/importing-from-noneu-countries. A Dutch explanation of the export of goods outside the EU can be found at Ondernemersplein.nl. As from 1 January 2021, the UK will also be a non-EU country in the area of taxation (customs duties, VAT). Check the UK Trade Tariff database for the most up-to-date trade tariffs and VAT rates and exceptions per product. Further information on applying for a UK EORI number can be found at https://www.gov.uk/eori. An overview of all steps that businesses can take to prepare for trade with the UK as from 1 January 2021 can be found in the Brexit Impact Scan.

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