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Photo credit: Anastasija Vasic

Gjoko Tanasoski, MSc is Director-General of the Customs Administration of the Republic of North Macedonia (CA) since 2017. During his tenure, this institution carried out significant reforms for increasing the efficiency of customs operations at the national level, including the launch of the new electronic customs declarations processing system and the implementation of the Authorized Economic Operator program.

Concurrently, CA is involved in all ongoing trade facilitation initiatives implemented under the auspices of the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) and is actively pursuing multiple undertakings aimed at strengthening bilateral and regional cross-border cooperation. In 2017, Mr. Tanasoski initiated the organization of regular informal meetings of directors of Customs Administrations in the region to coordinate activities and discuss common challenges in the implementation of the regional trade facilitation agenda. CANM is chair of the CEFTA Subcommittee on Customs and Rules of Origin in 2020 and in this capacity is directly responsible for the regional customs agenda, including the process of revising the Multiannual Action Plan for Regional Economic Area in the Western Balkans (MAP REA), which is expected to be completed at the next Summit of the Berlin Process for Western Balkans that will take place in Sofia and Skopje in September — October 2020.

Q. What measures have countries in the Western Balkans taken to keep the borders in the region open and to facilitate efficient movement of goods during the COVID-19 pandemic? How effective have those measures been?

A. Customs Administration (CA), together with all Ministries and agencies in the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia have made exceptional efforts to sustain economic activity and keep the borders in the region open. Under the Macedonian chairmanship with the CEFTA Subcommittee on Customs and Rules of Origin an initiative was launched and so-called Green Corridors were established, requiring all CEFTA Parties to provide 24-hour border operation for export and import of goods within the CEFTA region and at key border crossings with the European Union, and ensuring priority passage of fresh agricultural products and foodstuff, medicines and medical equipment.

CA has also adopted a series of measures and recommendations at the national level aimed at facilitating the work of the economic operators during the COVID 19 pandemic, such as extending ex officio the validity of authorizations for simplified customs procedures and simplifying procedures for extending the validity period of bank guarantees. Measures were also taken to simplify the procedure for re-issuing permits for favorable users of ethyl alcohol, such as public and private healthcare institutions and companies that produce disinfectants.

CA is permanently providing updated information concerning import and export issues and the cross-border movement of goods to the private sector members of the Advisory Council — the Chambers of Commerce and the transport associations such as AMERIT and MAKAMTRANS. In this regard, we are putting maximum effort to make the information available to the public through the relevant websites and social media by constantly updating the Guidelines for customs matters related to the COVID 19 pandemic, which are published on the CA website.

Q. Is it realistic to expect that some of the trade facilitation measures introduced to facilitate the movement of essential goods during the pandemic will continue to apply on a permanent basis for all shipments? If so, which ones?

A. We expect the following measures to remain in effect, regardless of how things proceed with the COVID-19 pandemic:

· Special priority lanes for transporters of food and medical supplies.

· Redirecting of the circulation of goods from crisis areas only through certain border crossing points to ensure concentration of the available controlling capacities at the border points of higher risk, as well as functional reorganization in coordination with other border agencies.

· Exemption from customs duties for certain products.

· Extended deadlines for submission of a guarantee to secure the payment of the excise debt for goods that are in the procedure of excise duty deferred payment.

Q. Customs Administration of North Macedonia is chairing the CEFTA Subcommittee on Customs and Rules of Origin in 2020. What are the key priorities of the chairmanship and what do you expect to achieve by the end of the year?

A. This year, the Republic of North Macedonia, through its Customs Administration, has the honor to chair the CEFTA Subcommittee on Customs and Rules of Origin. As part of the chairmanship, CA has put forward an ambitious program to facilitate trade between the CEFTA Parties.

The program contains a number of key priorities. The first refers to the facilitation of free trade in goods. To this end, CA expects that during its chairmanship, CEFTA Parties will proceed with implementing the validation procedure for mutual recognition of national Authorized Economic Operator programs, coordinate the implementation of the regional Risk Management Strategy and further advance the efforts for mutual recognition of border procedures and documents.

E-commerce has completely changed the perception of commerce in the international trading arena. CA expects this priority to ensure harmonization of e-commerce regulations with the EU regulations.

To assist the process of further trade integration between CEFTA Parties and the EU Member States, the Subcommittee under the Macedonian chairmanship continues the work on strengthening coordination in the process of transitional application of the revised rules of origin, as a key step towards the acceptance of the revised Pan-Euro-Mediterranean Convention.

Q. How do trade facilitation reforms implemented under CEFTA comply with and complement the countries’ efforts for harmonizing national law and practices with the EU Acquis Communautaire and standards?

A. CEFTA Parties use more barriers and perform more documentary and physical controls compared to the EU Member States. This is result of regulations and practices that are not harmonized with EU regulations and international rules.

The national procedures, operations and documents of every CEFTA Party are being analyzed and subjected to the complex and thorough process of alignment with the EU law and international conventions, standards and practices. The key goal of these efforts is to address the justified criticism that trading in the Western Balkans costs more, lasts longer and includes burdensome documentary requirements and to establish efficient and integrated supply chain management achieved with advanced trade facilitation concepts, such as the Authorized Economic Operator programs, selectivity and risk management, the exchange of information between customs authorities and other border agencies, etc.

Q. As part of the efforts to increase regional trade cooperation, North Macedonia and Albania have announced their intention to introduce joint border controls for goods and passengers at all border crossings. Can you inform us of the status of this initiative and what it entails?

A. The interest of the Republic of North Macedonia to promote and deepen bilateral and multilateral cooperation is expressed through the efforts to improve good neighborly relations and develop regional cooperation, especially in the area of cross-border cooperation.

To enhance further the beneficial cooperation between North Macedonia and Albania and their mutual desire to improve the conditions for the movement of people and goods across borders, the two countries have expressed their readiness to start the process of establishing joint border controls on all of their common border crossings.

The main objective of joint border controls is to simplify the border formalities and reduce the duration of procedures for passenger and cargo traffic at the border crossings. This is accomplished by placing border officials from both countries together at a single location.

Thus far, North Macedonia and Albania have defined the basis for negotiations and have established the negotiating teams. The next step will be the signing of a bilateral Framework Agreement regulating the general legal and institutional rules for establishing common border crossings and exercising joint controls. Separate protocols will set out the procedural and administrative details for every individual border crossing, as agreed between the respective border agencies.

Q. The launch of the new system for electronic processing of customs declarations in June 2019 was a giant step towards moving to completely paperless customs operations in North Macedonia. What does this process entail and when it is expected to be completed?

A. As of 1st June 2019, CA started a new chapter in its operations — we have replaced ASYCUDA with the Customs Declarations and Excise Document Processing System (CDEPS). The new system is fully in line with the CA’s commitment to providing quality IT support for processing customs declarations and introducing paperless customs operations. CDEPS also makes it possible to interoperate with the relevant European Union systems.

CDEPS has radically changed the way the customs works. As of April 2020, exporting from North Macedonia is performed completely electronically, while the import procedure will become fully paperless in September 2020. CDEPS is ranked among the most sophisticated modern systems used by the EU Member States, and its adoption marks another important step forward in meeting the requirements for joining the EU Customs Union.

The new system is a prerequisite for the further digitalization of services and significantly simplifies the work of all participants in cross-border procedures. It creates an efficient and modern customs environment. For the economic operators, CDEPS means shorter time to submit customs declarations, simpler procedures, and — most importantly — significantly reduced costs. All processes are automated, which eliminates contacts between participants in customs procedures, and reduces the risk of human error and illegal actions and corruption.

Q. What is the status of implementation of the AEO program in North Macedonia? How many companies have been granted the AEO status to date? What are the key features and the status of implementation of the initiative for mutual recognition of AEO programs in the CEFTA region?

A. The AEO status is internationally recognized, so that economic operators from North Macedonia that participate in the international supply chains (producers, exporters, importers, freight forwarders, transporters) are safe and secure and are subject to efficient customs controls and procedures that are aligned with international standards.

An Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) is an entity approved by the customs administrations as a trusted trader and as result of that status enjoys facilitated customs controls for security and safety and/or simplified customs procedures. AEO status is available not only to importers and exporters, but also to producers, transporters, customs brokers, logistical operators, warehouse holder, provided they meet the stipulated criteria and conditions.

The benefits of becoming an AEO are many, both direct and indirect. The direct benefits include improved efficiency of the company’s internal systems and processes; prior notification and priority treatment if/when selected for customs control, easier access to customs simplifications, the possibility to request a different location for control, and increased cooperation with customs authorities and other border agencies.

The indirect benefits include reduced security and safety incidents, reduced theft and loss, i.e., higher safety standards for products, facilities, equipment, information and resources. In addition, the use of the AEO logo positively impacts the image of the company by designating it as a reliable and trustworthy business partner.

To date, in North Macedonia thirteen companies have received AEO status, and they account for nearly 50% of the total number of foreign trade transactions in the country.

The mutual recognition concept provides that companies with an AEO status in one CEFTA Party are treated equally in another CEFTA Party, provided that the country issuing the AEO authorization meets all legal, procedural and institutional requirements relating to AEO, as defined in the EU law.

The possibility for mutual recognition of national AEO programs within the CEFTA region was created with the Decision no. 1/2019 of the CEFTA Joint Committee that entered into force on April 1,2020. North Macedonia was the first country in the CEFTA region to submit, through its Customs Administration, an official request for initiating the procedure for mutual recognition of the AEO authorizations for customs simplifications (AEOC) and security and safety (AEOS) issued in the country.

In addition, CEFTA Parties have agreed to put forward an initiative to extend the mutual recognition program to the EU Member States.

Q. The process of revising MAP REA for the Western Balkans is underway and the revised version of this document for the period 2021–2024 is expected to be adopted at the Sofia — Skopje Summit this fall. What are the main areas that the countries in the region will have to focus on in the next four years to further increase the level of trade integration and the volume of mutually traded goods?

A. The overall objective of the Multi-Annual Action Plan for Regional Economic Area (MAP REA) is to create an environment for uninterrupted flow of goods, people, capital and highly skilled labor within the Western Balkans, thus making the region more attractive for investment and trade, strengthening its EU prospects and ensuring prosperity for all citizens.

The trade component of MAP REA for will focus on boosting the regional exchange of goods and services by reducing the costs, administrative burdens and non-tariff barriers in mutual trade.

The key activities of the MAP REA trade component for the next four years will include harmonizing the regulatory requirements applied in the region; introducing the concept of the mutual recognition of documents and procedures; strengthening cooperation among customs authorities, and harmonizing rules of origin, risk analysis, AEO, green corridors for all goods, working hours of border agencies, delivery and processing of pre-arrival information, processing of e-commerce shipments and the protection of intellectual property rights.

Joint actions will address health, safety and environmental requirements, improving the quality infrastructure and market surveillance, strengthening the regional cooperation, transparency and dialogue, enhancing the capacity of the private sector, protecting the rights of consumers and harmonizing statistical data.

Official Account of the USAID Economic Development, Governance and Enterprise Growth Project.

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