Common Ground News Service

New Initiative ‘Vital Enabler’ for Mideast Trade Links

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Fruit and vegetable imports are left to rot on ships while waiting for the go-ahead from customs authorities in Mediterranean ports. Sluggish laboratory testing in harbours has resulted in goods containers waiting indefinitely as businesses lose clients and consumers lose patience.

Despite huge strides and advances within global trade relations and communications technology, shipping goods between Europe and the Middle East often still involves red tape and time-consuming paperwork. But a new EU project, CUSTOM MED, promises a roadmap offering practical recommendations on how to streamline customs procedures and boost regional trade.

The first EU partnership project involving the Middle East and dealing with trade, CUSTOM MED officially launched on 5 June in the port city of Aqaba, Jordan. Politicians and businesses throughout the Mediterranean region have high hopes for the project, which cost European taxpayers 1.1 million euros but promises substantial returns in the form of increased efficiency in shipping goods – which will in turn boost competitiveness and create more jobs and greater prosperity.

“The unique aspect to this project is that all partners involved are part of the solution. The obstacles to custom clearance in ports in the region are complex. And the key to speeding up procedures and unlocking the enormous trade potential is about finding ways for ports to work together. The Europeans don’t hold the answers alone – I know of ports in the Middle East that operate more smoothly than some European ports”, explained CUSTOM MED project coordinator Fabio Ballini, Professor at the University of Genoa in Italy.

“What we have to do is get together and study best practices throughout the Mediterranean region – north and south – and set up joint training programs for customs officers and streamline our technology. We all need this to happen. This is a real win-win project.”

Some basic keys to increasing transparency in customs procedures in the region are already in place, at least in theory. In general, global trade operates under one unified customs system – the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA), which was adopted worldwide in 1981. Although the communications design is in place, the system is applied differently at individual ports. These differences are not always due to incompatible technology systems, but also to a lack of skills among customs officers and overburdened management. This is why training programs are integral to the project.

Open discussions on good governance among stakeholders and port authorities in the CUSTOM MED project may also bring about new perspectives on these issues. “Good governance is about increasing efficiency – making better use of port capacity and increasing competitiveness. But it is also important to remember that customs procedures are there for good reasons – to protect consumers and the environment from hazardous products, for instance. We need to focus on speeding up procedures but at the same time make sure they are efficient”, said Ballini.

The real potential of CUSTOM MED cannot be underestimated. The Arab Spring has brought new space for change throughout the region. Europe is now in a unique position to build on this renaissance, benefitting from the economic dynamism the Middle East has to offer from its talented youth and rekindled aspirations.

Nonetheless, much needs to be addressed. The image of rotting fruit and vegetables on ships waiting for custom clearance is no mere metaphor. The average time it takes customs authorities to approve import consignments at ports in Middle Eastern and North African countries is 40 days, despite the region’s reliance on Europe to take up to 50 per cent of its exports – hardly a balanced base for trade relations .

And with the current drive for greater efficiency and competitiveness among European harbours the time seems right for all parties to take a fresh look at the basics of trade in the Mediterranean region, which has for millennia been the true melting pot of civilizations. CUSTOM MED marks one such step towards greater mutual integration and dialogue – one that will offer practical solutions on how to boost trade and deliver on the hopes of today’s world.

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Kim Wyon-Sergeant is a Danish freelance writer and photographer.

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