Security threat

German customs authority stretched to the limit

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Reading is part of the job. Source: AP

Germany’s customs authority is so understaffed that it’s at risk of failing to fulfill core tasks that include combating money laundering, insiders say.

It has 40,000 staff but needs 3,500 more, the head of its trade union, Dieter Dewes, told Handelsblatt. “I see a risk that it won’t be able to do its job because of the staff shortage,” he said. The Federal Audit Office, currently reviewing the authority’s work, agrees that it needs more staff, according to sources.

The problem is that the customs authority has been saddled with increasing responsibilities in recent years. In addition to collecting tariffs and monitoring the flow of goods, its duties now also include curbing illegal employment, checking whether firms are paying the statutory minimum wage introduced in 2015, collecting vehicle tax and combating money laundering. It will also be put in charge of collecting car road tolls in future.

“The customs administration is increasingly turning into a jack-of-all-trades operation,” said Florian Toncar, a lawmaker for the pro-business Free Democrats. “It lacks a clear definition of what tasks it should assume in the era of the European single market.” He said the work of the authority’s new anti-money laundering division, the Financial Intelligence Unit, which was set up last summer, had been “disastrous” so far.

“The customs administration is increasingly turning into a jack-of-all-trades operation”

Florian Toncar, parliamentarian with the Free Democratic Party

Finance ministry figures presented in March showed that the unit had a backlog of more than 30,000 cases by February 1, and it’s increasing at a rate averaging 5,600 per month even though money laundering cases are supposed to be handled in a matter of days.

In its defense, the ministry said the FIU was still being set up. But it appears to lack even the most basic resources. Up to last November, banks, insurers and lawyers could only communicate suspicious cases by fax because the IT system wasn’t up and running yet, meaning that they had to be typed into databases by hand. In addition, the police and the unit wasn’t able to access each other’s data automatically. And around a third of the 165 positions haven’t been filled yet. The chairman of the GdP police trade union, Frank Buckenhofer, complained that the FIU was the “Cinderella of the security architecture.”

And it could all get worse. Britain’s exit from the EU next March could overwhelm the authority because it will have to start monitoring the huge flow of goods between Germany and Britain. Mr. Dewes, the trade unionist, said a so-called “hard” Brexit in which there’s no trade agreement would require some 2,000 additional customs officers. The finance ministry has a more conservative estimate of 100 to 800, depending on what the trading relationship turns out to be.

Martin Grieve is a reporter for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Jan Hildebrand leads Handelsblatt’s financial policy coverage from Berlin. To contact the authors: grieve@handelsblatt.com and hildebrand@handelsblatt.com

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