Queueing for long hours at Slovakia's borders may soon be a thing of the past for many freight shippers. The Slovak customs directorate has drafted a customs law which could slash waiting times at border crossings, which business leaders and EU representatives have criticised as far too long.
The main aim of the legislation, which the Finance Ministry is currently reviewing, is to speed up checking procedures at borders by bringing in more efficient search and documentation methods common in western Europe. The ministry was unable to say when the new rules might take effect.
Both company representatives as well as shippers have said that quicker verification procedures at the borders will help shipping companies on a microeconomic level, but also bring wider benefits to the country on a macroeconomic level through a more flexible exchange of goods.
"Our members have got used to queues at the borders, as have companies. But while shipping companies take long queues into consideration [when making plans], any change towards quicker checking procedures is welcomed," said Marián Grác, president of the Slovak shippers union.
Slovak crossings have been characterised by long queues since Czechoslovakia's 1993 split. Many of the new crossings, customs officials say, simply did not have the capacity to cope with the massive traffic of freight shipments. The problem was exacerbated by a lack of customs offices inside the country to check domestic lorries before they got to the border, thus reducing the queues.
Experts have also said that bureaucracy and old customs procedures based on exhaustive document checks and lorry searches - an administrative hangover from the communist regime - have significantly contributed to waits at borders, which can sometimes stretch to as long as eight hours.
However, the Customs Directorate says that pressure from the European Union has ushered in the changes. Silvia Balásziková, spokesperson for the directorate, said that the new legislation will follow similar customs laws valid in EU member states.
"It's very good for shippers when most of the countries they drive through have similar customs legislation, because they're used to it and it's easier for them to have all necessary documents ready to cross the [Slovak] border without problems," Balásziková said.
She explained that one of the main principles that the new customs legislation would be based on was a 'selectivity principle', which meant that only those lorries which fulfilled certain listed criteria would be checked by a customs officer.
These criteria include, for example, whether freight that is transported is possible contraband (i.e. alcohol or cigarettes), whether it comes from a country known for high frequencies of drug smuggling, or whether the lorry itself is constructed in such a way that it has additional 'hidden' space where undeclared or illegal freight can be stored and smuggled.
If neither the freight nor the lorry fulfills the criteria, then a vehicle can cross the border in a matter of minutes.
"The principle of selectivity has become common in European Union countries, which by putting this legislation into practice have managed to shorten queues [at borders]," Balásziková said. "Our current customs law is already similar to that in EU countries. But with a few differences the new law will be almost identical with EU customs legislation."
Feeling the benefits
EC chiefs and prime ministers of EU countries have in the past been critical of the delays at Slovak borders, especially the crossing between Austria and Slovakia at Petržalka on the western outskirts of Bratislava (see story this page), and have called for legislative changes.
According to representatives of the foreign business community, Slovak customs legislation has, however, improved over the last couple of years. "I think that the legislation is getting closer to EU legislation. Moreover, some crossings were reconstructed, so now they are bigger and can serve the needs of shippers much better," said Fabrizio Paoletti, executive director of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia.
The shippers' union's Grac said that when the new laws are introduced, shipping companies themselves may find their costs lowered dramatically. "We have to pay drivers for waiting at the border, and that has to be in convertible currencies. Stopping this could save shipping firms quite a considerable amount of money. There are also fuel costs to be thought about. Drivers starting up engines repeatedly in queues can actually add quite a cost to a trip."
Martin Wessel Tolvig, head of the Danish Chamber of Commerce, added that this quicker process may have a long-term macroeconomic benefit. "There may not be such an immediate effect on company production, but the most important thing with changing this legislation is that it will speed up the whole import/export process [for companies]," he said.
Analysts at J & T Securities Miloš Božek said that while this would help companies take advantage of lower costs, there could also be a small, but important, wider effect on the Slovak economy. "This [lessening the border waiting times] will be good in reducing costs for shippers and will make firms more efficient. This in itself may be good for the Slovak economic environment."
Balásziková for her part said that to quicken frontier transportation, additional improvements to services were needed, such as a widening of some smaller border points and an increase in the number of customs offices inside the country. "There are still some crossings, especially with the Czech Republic, which are too small to cope with the sheer volume of lorries driving to or from Slovakia. In the near future, we have to focus on their reconstruction and the overall improvement of services on our frontiers," she said.
But even when the new customs law comes into effect, companies have said, certification, licences and other documents needed for cross-border traffic will remain a hard nut to crack.
Legislation on certificates and licences for goods and export-import permissions has been frequently revised. The speed at which they are revised is often too much for some companies, whose drivers are sometimes turned back at borders because they lack important documents.
"Many companies don't follow the legislation as it changes, and are often surprised when they learn about it. I think that the legislation here changes quickly, but still they should pay more attention to it," Balásziková said. "If they do so," she added, "they will make customs officers' jobs easier and shorten queues."