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Rival single window schemes could make NI traders’ life more difficult

[ February 1, 2022   //   ]

UK and EU attempts to simplify trade could actually lead to more headaches for traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, says the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee.

The Committee, which considers recently approved and draft EU legislation and policy documents, and examines their legal and political significance, says that the EU is moving closer to passing legislation for a ‘Single Customs Window’. This would link customs and regulatory IT systems into a single online portal, allowing traders with the bloc to clear goods more easily.

However, it points out, the UK Government has announced plans for its own ‘Single Trade Window’ and has yet to clarify how the new system will operate in Northern Ireland where, under the Protocol, EU customs controls must be applied.

The Committee says that the latest analysis suggests that the Government intends that the UK and EU ‘single window’ initiatives will be linked in some way and has started discussions with the EU on a joined-up approach.

Chair of the Committee, Sir Bill Cash said: “Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, the EU’s plan for a one-stop shop to clear goods risks adding customs formalities for trade within the UK where there were none before. One year on from our first report, we are no closer to clarity.

“We are calling on the Government to set out how it will work with the EU to ensure UK businesses based in or trading with Northern Ireland are not impacted as well as how it plans to resolve overlap with its own parallel proposals to set up a single customs portal.

“Given the scale of the technical challenge of linking customs and regulatory systems, in both the UK and EU proposals, this must happen sooner rather than later.”

Sir Cash has written to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Lucy Frazer MP, asking how the Government is ensuring that the interests of Northern Ireland are considered in discussions with the EU and how overlap with the UK system will be resolved.

In October 2020, the European Commission presented a proposal for a regulation establishing a Single Customs Window (SCW). This would require EU Member States’ customs authorities to link their electronic systems to a number of EU databases in order to clear goods, in place of manual checking of paper documents. The legislation is likely to be agreed at some point in 2022, although full implementation is likely to be phased in over a period of ten years due to the complex technical changes to IT systems.

The UK Government previously said in February 2021 that it is “open to the opportunity of interoperability between the UK and EU systems, but that it would wait for the technical specifications for the EU’s Single Customs Window before initiating any further engagements with the European Commission.

However, says the Committee, the Government appears to have already initiated discussions seeking a more general linkage between the EU and UK ‘single window’ initiatives: at the first meeting of the new UK/EU Specialised Committee on Customs Cooperation on 7 October 2021, it outlined potential scope for future cooperation regarding Single Trade Window, interoperability, exchange of information and how best to use data. It is not clear if the UK’s participation in the SCW would give rise to any EU concerns about UK access to confidential commercial information.