This blog post summarises our activities during the fifth workshop of the foresight project The Future of Customs in the EU 2040, which took place on the 6th and 7th February 2020, in Brussels. This workshop represented the last step of the foresight process, the moment when we engaged high-level representatives from all EU customs administrations to embrace the vision created previously and to start the collective reflection on what this vision could mean in terms of future policy action.

There were two main differences with the previous workshops. First of all the number of participants was approximately the double from the previous workshops, with almost 70participants from all EU customs authorities. The second main difference was that these people were for the most part new to the foresight process for the future of customs in the EU.

After a few introductory words from our colleague Laurent Bontoux, Philip Kermode – Director for Customs in DG TAXUD – kicked off the workshop by recalling the background of the project. Mr Kermode acknowledged the results already obtained by the project and positioned this work in the context of the new Commission’s mandate to “bring the Customs Union to the next level” and to develop the use of strategic foresight (what this project is) for EU policymaking.

Laurent Bontoux continued by giving an overview of the various stages of the project to date and went through the workshop’s agenda. He also asked two participants to take the role of informal witnesses to the process and share their personal observations from Day 1 at the start of Day 2.

Once the scene was set, the participants engaged in an ice-breaking exercise. They paired up and answered the following question: “Imagine you are in 2040 and you are in an ideal customs system. What is, according to you, the single most important improvement compared to today?”

After a few minutes of reflection, the participants shared their ideas with all. These ideas, collected by the JRC team, covered a broad range of issues. A few examples were integrated systems of management including all stakeholders; Smart integration (one IT system, full digitalization) and ICT risk operation (the role of AI, blockchain); Stronger governance (CU completion) and unified customs authority (EU Customs Agency); The extended role of ‘Customs for Society’ (safety, security, environment protection); Trained human resources.

After a break, Laurent Bontoux came back to the robust process that was used to develop the draft vision. He explained  not only what a vision is (and what it is not), but also why it is needed and which are the elements that compose it.

A vision is not a mission (that explains a role), nor a goal (which is very specific) or a fantasy. The role of a good vision is to inspire in such a way as to influence decision making today, to give a sense of direction, to rally people around common values and to set people onto coherent paths.

Drawings by

Laurent Bontoux then presented the draft vision statement built during the previous foresight workshop and asked the participants to comment it. While a large majority of participants supported its substance, a general preference emerged for shortening it and adapting its first sentence. This led to the following draft vision statement:

From customs in the EU to EU customs

In 2040, we, EU Customs, fully protect society, the environment and the EU economy through effective facilitation of legitimate trade and intelligent, risk-based supervision of supply chains. We, EU Customs, are proactive, working seamlessly with our stakeholders and are committed to innovation and sustainability. We are the reference for customs worldwide. In 2040, we are seen to act as one!

After lunch, time had come to start thinking about how to achieve that vision. To that end, the participants were asked to split into eight groups of about ten persons each. Four groups were asked to construct a roadmap to the vision for a world that would be resource constrained and the other four to construct one for a world that would not be resource constrained.

The small groups were then given 30 minutes to identify the steps that would have to be taken on the way to achieve the vision and to write them on post-its and place them on a large sheet of paper with a timeline from today up to year 2040.

At the end of the allocated time, the sub-groups were asked to merge by two and to consolidate their work. After 30 minutes, they were asked to merge and consolidate again into two big groups of about 38 people each.

This process led to the creation of one resource-constrained roadmap and one which was not resource constrained. Two volunteers then presented their respective roadmaps to the other half of the room.

Overnight, the Joint Research Centre team copied the effective milestones in these roadmaps onto large post-its that were then presented side by side on a large wall. They contained approximately 60 milestones in total, shown in the pictures below.

Resource-constrained roadmap
Not resource-constrained roadmap

Day 2 started with the remarks from the two witnesses. Both were positive regarding the process. One insisted on the solidarity between customs services and defended the idea of a customs agency. The other focussed more on the participatory nature of the process and its benefits.

As there were about twice as many milestones as could be processed in the time that was available, the JRC team organised a collective prioritisation exercise. Participants were each given 5 sticky dots that they could use to vote on the milestones they considered the most important. This gave a clearly distinctive scoring (most voted versus least voted) that allowed an easy attribution of 28 milestones in a decreasing order of priority to pairs of participants.

Drawings by

The task of each pair of participants consisted in defining for each milestone what conditions (pre-requisites) had to be fulfilled before they could be achieved and who should do what in that respect. The point of the exercise was to generate a realistic understanding and concrete information about what it would take to make the vision happen. To do that, participants filled in specific templates for the milestone they chose to work on.

After an introduction and explanation of the policy context by Mr Kermode, the final exercise consisted in a brainstorming to identify possible new tools to improve the management of the Customs Union. To give structure and diversity of perspective to the exercise, the participants were split into eight parallel groups: two reflected from the perspective of DG TAXUD, one from the perspective of DG TRADE, two from the perspective of a Member State with land borders, two from the perspective of a Member State with sea borders and one from the perspective of a Member State with no external EU border other than an airport. After about half an hour, the various groups reported on their findings. These reports gave a rich set of ideas that DG TAXUD will take up further into the policy reflection.

This session was followed by a short discussion session. Mr Kermode then concluded the workshop, explaining the next steps that DG TAXUD intends to take with the results of this exercise (involving the Trade Contact Group, Customs Policy Group, Commission Communication, etc.).

At this moment, the new draft vision statement is being shared with all Member States and stakeholders and will be discussed in the next policy meetings of the Customs Union. This represents the end of the formal foresight process on the future of customs in the EU 2040 and the start of the political process of “bringing the Customs Union to the next level”. This can demonstrate the clear impact of foresight on policymaking.

For more information on this project please check here and continue reading this blog to understand how we use foresight to inform policymaking, in a participative and inclusive way.

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