The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

Customs law clears first hurdle after marathon debate

In the debate on the Customs Act in the National Council, the conservatives have largely prevailed. On Wednesday, the left wing of the Council failed almost without exception with motions to restrict the powers of the Federal Office for Customs and Border Security (BAZG).

After almost eight hours of debate, the decision of the large chamber was relatively clear. With 120 votes in favor, 62 against and 8 abstentions, the National Council said yes to the totally revised Customs Act.

With this decision, a middle-class majority of the SVP, FDP and the Center Party prevailed. The SP and Greens rejected the customs reform, while the GLP abstained in part.

Controversial issues included the future powers of the BAZG, the relationship to cantonal police sovereignty and data protection. Almost without exception, the left wing of the Council failed with its amendments. Among other things, the National Council decided that federal employees should be allowed to carry weapons at the border if they could be exposed to particular threats.

DNA sample for identity checks

In one respect, the National Council even went beyond the Federal Council's proposal: in future, it wants the border guards to be able to order a DNA sample during identity checks.

It also left a passage in the law, against the wishes of the left, according to which the BAZG should also be able to process data on people's religious, political and ideological views for the purposes of criminal prosecution. A motion by the SVP to enshrine systematic checks at national borders in the law did not stand a chance.

Karin Keller-Sutter, the Finance Minister responsible for customs, emphasized that the bill was not about extending the powers of the BAZG.

The original draft of the total revision was met with harsh criticism from the cantons - because they saw the federalist system of competencies at risk. Keller-Sutter then set up a working group to address the objections. The resolutions of the National Council are largely based on the proposals of this working group.

Less money for the federal treasury

However, a whole series of points are likely to cause controversy when the Council of States discusses the Customs Act. For example, the National Council wants revenue from the auctioning of tariff quotas, such as for meat, to be considered import duties in future.

This would mean that the funds would no longer benefit the general federal treasury in future. Instead, they would be refundable under certain circumstances - namely when products are re-exported after further processing.

Critics from the ranks of the left and the GLP saw this as a hidden export subsidy. The new regulation was not compatible with international trade law. Keller-Sutter also opposed the proposal, citing the federal government's financial situation.

Controversial registration requirement

A relaxation of the customs declaration requirement requested by the National Council is also likely to cause a stir in the small chamber: goods that are not subject to duty should no longer have to be declared on import.

Markus Ritter (center/SG) justified the system change on behalf of the preliminary consultation committee with the reduction of bureaucratic hurdles. The current nationwide registration requirement is "just work that leads to nothing - except additional work for importers and exporters".

The SP, Greens and GLP argued unsuccessfully in favor of the status quo. They argued that if only dutiable goods had to be declared, smuggling would become child's play. They also feared a massive slump in customs revenue.

"Monster template"

Supporters of the major customs reform also made it clear during the debate that the deal was not perfect, to put it mildly. There was talk of "monstrosity", "monster bill" or "monster law" on various occasions. Some admitted that even after a long time they still did not fully understand the deal.

"We won't win a legal beauty prize with this bill," Keller-Sutter also conceded. It is imperative that the Council of States goes back over the books.

The aim of the total revision is to simplify procedures and tariffs and to implement digitization in the customs system. It is also the framework law for the organization of customs following the merger of customs and border guards.

©Keystone/SDA

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