I had a great pleasure to be the lead host for a 12 person SIECA delegation visit to Europe in June 2015. We spent two days in the Netherlands, one day in Belgium and two days in Switzerland in an action-packed tour, visiting several border areas, governmental offices and beyond.
The idea to organize a one-week customs and international trade visit tour to Europe first came when Mr. Roman Stoll from the Federal Customs Administration of Switzerland and I paid a four-day visit at the SIECA Secretariat in Guatemala City in March 2015. There we had several meetings and discussions on World Trade Organization´s Trade Facilitation Agreement, WTO TFA, implementation plans with the SIECA management – Ms. Carmen Gisela Vergara Mas and Mr. Javier Gutierrez; with Customs management and experts from all the six SIECA member countries; and with representatives of the Intra-American Development Bank. Some weeks after the Guatemala-visit, SIECA and IDB confirmed the willingness to come over to Europe, to learn about good practices in international trade, supply chain and border management in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. And after couple of hundreds of emails and phone calls – myself acting as the focal point in arranging the visit – we were ready to welcome the SIECA Delegation to Europe between Monday 1 June and Friday 5 June, 2015.
Monday-Tuesday we had a full agenda in the Netherlands. Monday started by presentations on Dutch Customs in general, and Schiphol Customs in specific, focusing on risk management, coordinated border management, and the SmartGate solutions at the Schiphol Airport. This was followed by a roundtable discussion with representatives from the Dutch Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economic Affairs, as well as with an expert from the air cargo industry. During Monday the SIECA delegation gained firsthand knowledge for example on One-Stop Shop (OSS) implementation steps in the Netherlands: Step 1. Information exchange; 2. Joint inspections; 3. Training specialists; 4. Joint risk analysis by both inspections and selection by Customs; and Step 5. One inspection inspects for the other. The program on Tuesday consisted of a tour in Port of Rotterdam, at the APM 2 Container terminal; as well as a visit to the Central command post of nuclear detection and an X-ray container scanner. In between we had a typical “Dutch sandwich” lunch, kindly offered by the hosts. The delegation enjoyed seeing the ultimate high level of automation at the new container terminal, as well as visiting a pragmatic “one stop inspection room”, where multiple border agencies work together inspecting containers flagged for manual inspections.
Wednesday was spent in Brussels, Belgium. In the morning, the trade representatives of the SIECA Delegation went to the European Commission, DG TRADE, for EU-SIECA related discussions. In the afternoon, most of the delegation visited the World Customs Organization, where the meeting started with discussions with the WCO Secretary General Dr. Kunio Mikuriya and the WCO Deputy Secretary General Mr. Sergio Mujica. This was followed by a presentation on WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and the linked WCO Instruments, by Ms. Heike Barczyk, the Deputy Director of Compliance and Facilitation Directorate at the WCO. Lastly, we had a brief presentation and roundtable discussions on the European Flagship Supply Chain Security Research, Development and Demonstrations project called FP7-CORE. This discussion was joined by Mr. Nik Delmeire, the Secretary General of the European Shippers Council; Ms. Nicolette van der Jagt, the Secretary General of CLECAT, the European association for forwarding, transport, logistics and customs services; and myself, Dr. Juha Hintsa, Founder of the Cross-border Research Association. After the meeting at WCO, it was time to fly from Brussels to Basel, Switzerland.
Thursday-Friday we had a packed program in Switzerland. Despite some “navigation challenges” with our three-car convoy, we arrived on time from Basel to Bern at the Directorate General of the Federal Customs Administration. We heard several interesting presentations focusing on performance mandate, tasks and strategy of Swiss Customs; on international affairs section and it’s relevant international cooperation program; on shifts from traditional revenue collection to environmental and incentive taxes; and on strategy and challenges regarding future customs clearance systems and platforms – all this by three top experts from Swiss Customs. I presented the outcomes of Swiss Customs and Cross-border Research Association -visit to SIECA in March 2015, suggesting some specific areas and priorities for future co-operation activities. Next, the Delegation visited the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, where the discussions focused on Swiss foreign policy in Central America and bilateral cooperation Switzerland - Central America; as well as on political and economic regional integration in Central America. After a quick photo session on the Bundeshaus terrace facing over River Aare, our journey continued towards the Swiss Customs facilities at the Zurich Airport. Again, there were some “logistics challenges” on the way to Zurich, when one of our three cars suddenly lost all engine coolant – fortunately a gas station was close by, and a road service company (car + mechanic) happened to be there. At the Zurich Airport, the SIECA Delegation learned a lot of details about Swiss Customs operations with air cargo and passenger flows. And as the last agenda item, we met a cute black Labrador retriever, who together with his trainer showed how effortlessly he finds illicit goods hidden in air cargo boxes and pallets…
On Friday morning – last day of the journey – we had again an early wake-up call at our hotel in Basel. We were warmly welcomed by Swiss Customs Officers at the Basel/Weil- Motorway border-crossing point – the highest volume customs clearance point in Switzerland. First the hosts explained about facts and figures on Basel/Weil, topped with interesting information on customs risk management processes and IT-systems. Now we all know that on average 3500 trucks cross the Basel/Weil border per day, and that around 600 million CHF is collected annually as indirect taxes at that border crossing point. After that we took a rooftop view over the border area premises, discussing further Import/Export/Transit -procedures, as well as visited the Swiss Transito-Cabins / Checkpoints. From the motorway we drove to the Swiss Customs House at the Basel Port, visiting the famous tri-border-point between Switzerland, Germany and France. There the Delegation learned about the barge traffic on River Rhine – the same river we saw three days earlier at Port of Rotterdam. From the Basel Port, we drove again to Bern, this time to visit the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, SECO. Lively discussions took place on the SECO rooftop meeting room on topics including EFTA – Central American FTA, as well as Bilateral Economic Relations Switzerland – Central America. And after lunch kindly offered by SECO, we headed towards Geneva for the final meeting of the week: World Economic Forum, WEF, where we all arrived just in time to learn about the organization and the key activities of WEF, including: the work of the WEF in Latin America, with updates from the Latin American Summit; and, the work of the WEF on trade and investment policy and implementation, including Policy Directions, Enabling Trade Index, Enabling Trade implementations. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, UNECE, was kind enough to explain about latest developments and trends in single window projects and implementations. And lastly, I shared briefly select work on trade facilitation and supply chain security research and education materials by the Cross-border Research Association and HEC University of Lausanne. I highlighted the important developments taking place within the FP7-CORE project - referring naturally to our meeting two days earlier at the World Customs Organization.
This concludes the brief summary of the SIECA week in Europe, and now I would like to thank all the SIECA Delegation members for coming over and spending the five days with us, here on the old continent:
- Costa Rica: Mr. Jhon Fonseca, Vice Minister Foreign Trade; and Mr. Luis Fernando Vasquez Castillo, Costa Rica Customs.
- El Salvador: Mrs. Luz Estrella Rodriguez, Vice Minister Foreign Trade
- Guatemala: María Luisa Flores Villagran, Vice Minister Foreign Trade; and Mrs. Maria Elisa Chang, Guatemala Customs.
- Honduras: Jeronima Urbina, Director of Economic Integration
- Nicaragua: Eddy Aldolfo Artola Garciá, Director Risk Management of Nicaragua Customs.
- Panama: Melitón Arrocha. Minister Foreign Trade; Mrs. Diana Salazar, Vice Minister Foreign Trade; and Mr. José Gómez Núnez DG of Panama Customs.
- SIECA Secretariat: Carmen Gisela Vergara Mas, Secretary General
- Intra-American Development Bank: Mr. Jaime Granados
And last but not least, warmest thanks to all the local hosts: Dutch Customs Administration; Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs; European Commission DG TRADE; World Customs Organization; Federal Customs Administration of Switzerland; Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland; State Secretariat for Economic Affairs of Switzerland; and World Economic Forum.
CBRA Blog by Juha Hintsa
PS. If your country / region would be interested on a similar European field visit, please contact us – we could organize the practical details for the next delegation, possibly every 1-2 years (of course the actual hosts need to agree to the visit in the first place, that goes without saying…). And one final note: next time a bus and a professional driver need to be rented, please!