The first ten years of the European Economic Community were the years of glory for customs union. The removal of customs duties and quantitative restrictions on imports and exports and the introduction of a common customs tariff, in July 1968, were important achievements of the young Community. They ruled out any "national preference" and gave rise to the "Community preference" for the products of the Member States. They provided formidable stimulus to intra-Community trade and, as expected by the EEC Treaty, were the foundation for the common market and all the common policies examined in this book.
The realisation of the customs union has also had important effects for the consumers of the member countries. It contributed to the material wellbeing of the Member States' citizens, through a remarkable increase of better quality goods at lower prices. Tangible manifestations of the customs union are the products from all over the continent, which are available at affordable prices in local stores in all the Member States. The customs union has also greatly facilitated the travel of the citizens inside the countries of the EC/EU.
What the Treaty had not foreseen was the perseverance of the national administrations, which quickly found obstacles other than those of customs to hinder trade between Member States, protect national production in an arbitrary way and, at the same time, defend their own functions and very existence (as in the case of the restructuring of customs administrations brought about by the abolition of customs controls).
As will be explained in the next chapter, the customs union was finally completed, together with the completion of the single market in 1992 [see section 6.1]. The most striking manifestation of the customs union was the disappearance of customs checks at the borders between Member States. The abolition of customs checks at internal borders was achieved thanks to the abolition of customs administrative documents, which burdened intra-European trade every year, a far-ranging reform of indirect taxation, examined in the chapter on taxation [see section 14.2.2] and the entry into force of a series of provisions reorganising fiscal, veterinary, phytosanitary, sanitary and safety checks and the collection of statistical data. The most meaningful aspect of this process is the lightening of the administrative burden of companies carrying out intra-European sales and purchases and, therefore, the encouragement of intra-European transactions.
In addition to the internal environment of the Union, the international environment of customs and commerce has been profoundly modified in the 1990s. The opening up of free international trade to the Central and Eastern European countries as well as those of the former Soviet Union and the entry into force of the new GATT agreements have been powerful catalysts in the globalisation of trade. At the same time, however, there has been a growing globalisation of illicit traffic in all areas, such as drugs, arms, nuclear material and protected animal species. From a customs viewpoint, this requires strengthened cooperation and mutual assistance between the customs’ administrations of EU countries and those of third countries, notably those of other European countries.
Therefore, the abolition of customs formalities at internal borders must be counterbalanced by the reinforcement of measures at external frontiers. Customs checks at the EU's external frontiers have to be strengthened for illegal imports from third countries and customs cooperation must ensure that differences in regulations do not give rise to fraud or problems for consumers. National security problems (crime, drugs, terrorism, firearms traffic) will have to be settled jointly and by a detailed exchange of information between the police and security forces of the Member States in the context of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters [see section 8.1.2]. Common policies are necessary regarding citizens of non-member countries circulating freely within the Member States, once they have crossed the borders of one of them [see section 8.1.4]. It is obvious that the customs union has had and continues having important spillover or multiplicative effects [see section 1.1.1] on a great number of common policies in other economic and even political fields.
On the 40th anniversary of the customs union, on 1 July 2008, the Commission proposed a strategy for the evolution of the customs union based on electronic customs, a modernised customs code and a coordinated approach with the national administrations [COM/2008/169]. The big challenge of the Member States customs officers, who are in fact customs officers of the Union, is to ensure a high quality of control at the external borders, applied in an effective, efficient and homogeneous manner. A delicate balance needs to be struck by the customs’ officers between ensuring minimum disruption to legitimate trade and free circulation of persons, on the one hand, and the need to detect and deter fraud and illegal activities, on the other.