EU member states by-pass Commission to give US access to containers at ports

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EU member states by-pass Commission to give US access to containers at ports
- US Customs Department moved from US Treasury to Homeland Security Department
- US Customs agents to be based in EU ports

Updated 27 May 2003

US Customs to issue "Do Not Load" notice in EU ports and to start issuing fines to "unauthorised" cargo leaving for the USA: Statement

The European Commission is taking legal action against Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium because they have signed individual bilateral agreements giving US Customs agents powers to search all containers leaving EU ports for the USA under its "Container Security Initiative" (CSI). The UK, Spain and Italy have also signed agreements and face similar action in the Court of Justice.

The USA has targeted the top 20 "mega-ports" bringing in containers and has so far completed agreements with 15 countries around the world.

In June 2002 two EU governments broke ranks. On 25 June the Netherlands government agreed that the USA-CSI could be introduced at the port of Rotterdam and on 26 June Belgium agreed that Antwerp should join. Two days later, 28 June, the French government too agreed that the USA could have access to Le Havre. On 31 July an initial meeting was held in Washington between officials of the European Commission and US Customs officials.

On 22 October 2002 a second meeting was held between Commission and US Customs officials. A Commission press release, dated 23 October, said that although both sides recognised the need to cooperate there were a number of "major principles" to be sorted out including "reciprocity" (ie: could EU officials inspect containers leaving the USA for its ports?) and "different views" still existed on the proposed 24 hour rule (see below). The Commission also noted that a "group of technical experts" would be meeting to "deepened discussion of specific areas".

But just eight days later, on 30 October 2002, the USA announced that the CSI would come into effect in 60 days. This requires all ships carrying containers to the USA to give their authorities details of their cargo under a USA imposed "24-hour Rule".

On 7 November Italy joined the CSI, the UK followed suit on 9 December then Spain (8 January 2003) and Sweden (28 January) followed suit. Thus seven EU states have now signed bilateral agreements to join the CSI.

A speech by US Customs Commissioner, Robert Bonner, on 21 November 2002 at a US Customs Trade Symposium elaborated on the CSI and its implications. The US Customs Department was being moved from the Department of the Treasury to the Department for Homeland Security which Bonner said was:

"good for our country, good for the security of America [and] good for the trade community"

The central idea was to create "Smart borders" and, a bit like the Stars Wars system, to "push our zone of security outwards" in order to take "the pressure off of the physical borders" through "partnerships" with businesses and foreign governments by carrying out essential checks before shipped containers leave foreign ports.

US customs officials will analyse the advanced information under the "24-hour Rule" and "identify and target high-risk containers", then US officials based in foreign ports will "screen high risk containers".

On 20 December the European Commission instituted legal proceedings against Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany. EU Transport Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, said that the plan was illegal and that it was the Commission's legal responsibility to negotiate trade and customs issues with non-EU states. US Customs Commissioner, Robert Bonner, said the Commission's action was "regrettable".

Once the European Commission did not immediately fall into line the US tactic was to pick off EU governments one by one. Nor is there any "reciprocity", EU customs officials will have no right to similarly inspect containers leaving the USA for the EU.

Although presented as an anti-terrorist measure and part of the USA "Homeland Security" programme, the screening and searching of containers can be expected to expand from arms and weapons of mass destruction to drugs and tobacco as well (as an unreleased EU document on a "Study on container controls in the ports of the EU" indicates, doc no 11010/00, 5.9.2000).

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"No details of the agreements have been made public let alone debated by national and European parliaments. What powers will these US Customs agents have? Will their powers be limited to terrorism or extend to crime in general? Will they be subject to national laws and the ECHR? Will they be liable for damage or false arrests?

Like over the International Criminal Court the USA has ignored EU institutions and picked off the Member States one by one. This is yet another example of democracy and accountability being by-passed in the name of the so-called war on terrorism"

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