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Is single market a reality?

Sometimes, one overlooked factor can turn a whole argument on its head.

The Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry has been clamouring on behalf of its members for more supervision of merchandise being brought into Malta on the catamaran from Sicily, claiming that the appropriate taxes and excise duties were not being paid.

The government has been strenuously defending the situation by stressing that we are part of the single market, with all the freedom of movement that this entails.

But Italian Ambassador Giovanni Umberto De Vito has challenged this by pointing out that rather than impose controls or surveillance on the trucks and trailers coming off the catamaran – reportedly under 100 a week – we should be asking why groupage freight coming in via any other portal has to go to Ħal Far as, after all, it too is being transported within the single market.

The current practice, in spite of EU accession, remains, according to operators, for groupage freight to be taken to the woefully inadequate Ħal Far centre, where the trailers are unloaded in the presence of customs officials. The operators must have their own bonded stores and incur additional costs in terms of both resources and time to release their imports – not to mention the activity it generates for haulers. At times, customs actually even do a scan on trailers as they are unloaded from the ships in Grand Harbour.

The reality is that the fine for not following this procedure is paltry – and it seems fairly common practice for operators to feel the risk is worth the time and effort gained.

It is no wonder that when catamaran operator Virtu introduced a larger ferry which could transport trailers, the operators saw a viable and tempting alternative. And when, for whatever reason, these trailers were not obliged to go through the bonded stores in Ħal Far, it became a no brainer that they would opt for the catamaran service.

You have to ask: would an operator taking a truckload of goods from Germany to Italy be made to unload in the presence of a customs official?

This one factor raises many other questions. When the chamber says that it believes many trailers are brazenly unloaded without supervision, it may very well be Maltese operators who are defying the Ħal Far procedure.

There is another factor that cannot be overlooked: Maltese consumers are travelling up to Sicily, ordering furniture from showrooms there and having it delivered and installed. Single market. Nothing wrong.

But it does mean that indignant claims about ‘Sicilian traders’ and tax evasion could be misleading.

At the moment, all sides have a valid – albeit myopic – point of view and it is clearly not the time for some knee-jerk reaction from the government, appeasing the Chamber by introducing market surveillance.

What is really required is a more scientific method of gauging the extent of the problem, rather than anecdotal evidence. The Chamber is trying to gather information on drops in sales in the retail sectors most affected, like furniture and wine and spirits. But finding out how much of it is due to illegal importation will be far harder to pin down.

The Ambassador suggests that the Chamber should work with its counterparts overseas rather than turn to the government and Parliament for sympathy. He also calls for the procedures at Ħal Far to be reconsidered. It may not solve illegal imports. But it would certainly be an important first step towards a level playing field.

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