An audit of Ireland’s implementation of a European Union scheme to ease trade by allowing lighter customs checks for ‘trusted traders’ has found inconsistencies in its implementation and that business operators need more clarity.
The report touches on a linchpin of the EU economy and single market as it concerns authorised economic operators (AEOs) or trusted traders, who manage more than 80 per cent of exports and about three-quarters of imports. They handle the bulk of €241,000 worth of goods that cross the EU’s external border each second.
Ireland was among the five member states examined by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) in the report, which found “uneven implementation” of the scheme across the EU and that it had untapped potential.
Ireland broadly came out well, but the auditors found some flaws, including that Irish authorities had “no clear definition” of what would constitute a serious or repeated infringement by a trader that could lead to them losing their trusted status.
“We did not raise any major red flags during our assessment of the implementation of the programme in Ireland. The EU AEO programme was, generally, well implemented by the Irish customs, with some identified weaknesses,” said the ECA member responsible for the report, Ildikó Gáll-Pelcz.
“We found that each of the member states we visited interpreted the criterion of ‘serious infringement’ and ‘repeated infringement’ differently within its own national rules. Ireland has no clear definition for the criteria and it analyses and treats each infringement on a case-by-case basis,” she added.
“The absence of a uniform approach across the EU might lead to inconsistencies in how AEOs are treated, with AEOs in some member states being advantaged compared with others.”
This inconsistency was due to a “lack of definitions” in the EU legislation governing the scheme, the report found, and recommended that the European Commission should rectify this by producing more precise guidance.
In a response to the report, the commission accepted the recommendation and is expected to announce new proposals to finesse the programme later this month.
On a positive note, the auditors praised “the close co-operation between Irish customs and Irish AEOs” and that traders are required to notify the customs authorities of any change that would affect their eligibility for trusted status as part of the application process.
However, Ireland does not automatically recognise AEOs that are either registered in other EU states or countries with which the EU has signed a mutual recognition agreement such as Canada, the auditors found.
“This goes against the main aim of the EU legislation and the programme,” Ms Pelcz said. “In order to get some benefits, such AEOs have to explicitly draw attention to their AEO status in their interactions with the Irish customs authority.”
The recognition of a trusted trader by one member state is supposed to automatically be valid across the bloc.
The audit surveyed traders in Ireland, Bulgaria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain, a selection of countries that were chosen according to certain risk criteria.
The Republic had 301 trusted traders as of December 2022, while Northern Ireland had 76.