My partner and I recently received a parcel from the United States, and inadvertently gained first-hand insight into the surreal world of red tape that awaits us if Brexit means leaving the European Customs Union (as the prime minister appears to be promising/threatening).
I happened to be in Slovakia – but the same rules apply throughout the EU – and will be applied to us if we end up outside the Customs Union.
It should have been simple enough. My partner, an artist, had ordered a few items using her own designs from an American fashion company. A text from DHL informed us they had arrived but would have to go through customs control. We went to DHL, at Bratislava airport, where an official gave us a chit to take to the customs office (a short drive away) while warning us that the form we would have to fill in was “beyond most human beings’ abilities” – and if we had problems they offered the service of completing it for 18 euros.
At Customs, an unsmiling officer with three stars on his epaulettes informed us we would need to complete a separate form, known as the Single Administrative Document, or SAD, for each item – a scarf, a cushion and a shoulder-bag. We could buy these documents at any good stationers (the nearest was 15 minutes’ drive away). We tried to ask why Customs didn’t have a stock of their own forms, but he had already busied himself under a mound of red tape.
As we contemplated this, a young man who was also in the queue told us he had a spare SAD form and was willing to give us it. We needed three, but decided to cross that bridge later.
Oh, and by the way, said the young man, you do realise you have to register first as an importer?
Register? Just to receive a parcel? Oh, yes. You had to be given an EORI (Economic Operator Registration and Identification) number, and this had to be done online – by filing a photocopy of an application form plus photocopies of your ID papers. Only then could you proceed to the next stage. Since we weren’t on the Internet, the man kindly allowed us to do this using his mobile phone – and in fact it went relatively quickly (less than an hour).
It occurred to me that we didn’t actually know what was in our parcel, since the company had warned us that the scarf, cushion and bag might be sent separately, and that we therefore did not know what commodity code or value to write in our SAD form.
A second customs officer volunteered to accompany us, by car, to DHL, to check the contents of the parcel. Sure enough, it contained only the scarf and cushion.
Back to the Customs office, where Officer Number Two decided to help us out by putting the two items – even though the products had different codes (listed in a two-inch-thick ledger) – on the single form that we had. He even filled the form in for us – much to the fury of his colleague, three-star Officer Number One. “I’ve been in this job for twenty years,” Number Two confided, “but this SAD form is impossible.” It took him a full half-hour to complete it (and stamp and sign each carbon copy).
Then, it turned out we were lucky: since the goods were worth less than €120 we would not have to pay customs duties on them… but we would have to pay VAT at 20% (on the goods themselves and also on the postage). This had to be done at a separate office.
After we paid, we received another chit and could finally go back to DHL to pick up the parcel.
It took us about three hours in all. Had the parcel been despatched from within the EU (or the Customs Union, which also includes Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Iceland, Macedonia and Serbia) it would simply have been delivered to our door by the courier. No forms, no duties, no extra VAT.
When the third item – the bag – arrives, we can look forward to going through the whole process again (having first acquired a SAD form from some stationery shop).
This, it would appear, is the fate that awaits all British importers and exporters in a post-Brexit future outside of the Customs Union. Any retailer who imports goods – any manufacturer who imports parts, anyone who receives a present – from mainland Europe will have to process a mound of paperwork that the EU has completely done away with within the Union. And the new import duties will of course force up prices.
Have a look at this document, and tell me why on earth any individual or company in Britain would wish to inflict this upon themselves.
But of course, the Brexiteers all insist, we knew exactly what we were voting for in the referendum! How dare anyone suggest otherwise…