A customs union is characterised by the existence of a single external tariff applied by all Member States to imports coming from third countries. Such imports only have to clear customs once and can then move freely within the common customs area. Reaching an agreement among the original Member States on a single external tariff required a complex striking of balances and compromises, given the different national interests, stemming from the different products that each country wished to protect. The common customs tariff (CCT) adopted by the European institutions in 1968 is, therefore, a major achievement of European integration (Article 28 TFEU, ex Article 23 TEC).
For the member countries, the CCT meant both the loss of customs revenue, which, since 1975, has been a resource of the Community/Union budget, and the option of carrying out an independent customs or trade policy [see sections 3.4 and 23.1]. No member country can unilaterally decide on or negotiate tariff matters; all changes to the CCT are decided by the Council following negotiation (if necessary) and proposal by the Commission. All bilateral (between the EU and non-member countries) and multilateral (in the past inside GATT and now inside WTO) negotiations are carried out by the Commission.
As of 1968, the Member States are not entitled to unilaterally carry out customs policy, i.e. suspend customs duties or change CCT. Only the Council can waive the normal application of CCT by means of regulations adopting various tariff measures. Such measures, whether required under agreements or introduced unilaterally, involve reductions in customs duties or zero-rating in respect of some or all imports of a given product in the territory of the European Union. They take the form of EU tariff quotas, tariff ceilings or total or partial suspension of duties.
The most important tariff concessions were granted by the European Community/Union in the context of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). In the course of several international negotiations, namely: the "Dillon Round" (1960-62), the "Kennedy Round" (1964-67) and the "Tokyo Round" (1973-79), substantial reductions of customs duties were made on most industrial products. The "Uruguay Round", which was launched on 20 September 1986 and was concluded on 15 December 1993, has achieved major tariff reductions on the part of the 117 participating countries in the sectors of industry, agriculture and services. It has also imposed new rules and disciplines to international trade, rules that the EU has incorporated into European law [see section 23.4].
Since 1995, the customs tariff of the European Union takes account of the outcome of the GATT Uruguay Round of negotiations [see section 23.2]. In principle, for each item and sub-item of the tariff nomenclature, both the autonomous rates and the conventional rates resulting from the GATT negotiations are indicated. Several technical annexes to the CCT set out the specific import regimes, such as the import regime for certain agricultural products or the regime for pharmaceutical substances which may benefit from exoneration on duties.
Before effecting any customs operation, it is first necessary to proceed to the "customs classification" of the goods concerned. Classification has a determining effect on the proper functioning of agreements between the EC/EU and certain exporting countries. The level of detail of the combined nomenclature has resulted, principally for those SMEs without computerised systems, in a complexity and multiplication of the lines to be declared. Therefore, businesses can request binding tariff information from the authorities in the Member States with responsibility for the classification of goods under the customs nomenclature [Regulation 952/2013]. This information indicates the tariff heading to be used for specific goods in all of the Member States. It therefore makes a vital contribution to the legal security of businesses and greatly facilitates imports and exports. A Regulation establishes statistical classification of products by activity (CPA), in order to ensure relevance with respect to the economic reality and comparability between national, European and international classifications [Regulation 451/2008].
The Commission and the Member States cooperate to ensure the proper and uniform application of the CCT's nomenclature. This customs instrument is very important, not only for the collection of customs duties, but also for a number of EU activities, such as the preparation of foreign trade statistics and the proper application of various measures regarding commercial, agricultural, fiscal or monetary policies [Regulation 2658/87, last amended by Regulation 2016/2293]. This activity takes the form of the adoption of Commission regulations, the finalisation of explanatory notes or classification slips in the customs nomenclature. The European Union uses the same nomenclature as its main trading partners, thus facilitating trade negotiations. It is called the Combined Nomenclature (CN) because it meets the EU's tariff and statistical requirements simultaneously [Regulation 952/2013].
In parallel with the introduction of the CN, the Integrated Community Tariff database (Taric) was established, in order to indicate, in relation to each CN code, the EU clauses applicable to the goods of this code. It incorporates import provisions not included by the CN, such as tariff quotas and preferences, the temporary suspension of autonomous CCT duties, anti-dumping duties and countervailing duties [Regulation 2658/87, last amended by Regulation 2016/2293, see also section 23.2.2]. Thus, Taric spans all the European measures applicable to trade and provides national administrations with information on all EU measures relating to internal and external trade.
A special system of relief from customs duties is applied, where by virtue of the special conditions under which goods are imported the usual need to protect the economy is absent, notably in the case of property intended for the personal use of the persons concerned [Regulation 1186/2009].