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CLARE O’TOOLE: The Year the EU Stole Christmas

I just had the sad duty of telling my three children in Shillelagh, County Wicklow that they would not be receiving their usual Christmas gift parcels from their grandparents, aunts and uncles in the United States. This wasn’t the first disappointment, my daughter’s birthday package from her grandparents didn’t arrive in November. It was rejected and returned by Irish Customs for faulty paperwork. My parents then sent a single puzzle from the birthday parcel as a test case with all the correct information and TARIC codes attached. The puzzle is still held up in Irish Customs awaiting payment of 24 euros in tax and fees.

Let that sink in, a single puzzle, a personal birthday gift from a child’s grandparents, carries a Customs Tax charge of 24 euros thanks to new EU Customs regulations recently introduced in Ireland. As far as I can tell, these new rules began to be enforced sometime in October or early November. I don’t know exactly when because the new EU Customs rules seemed to have slipped in without much warning.

I’ve received lots of An Post mailers through the mailbox. Post cards promoting new banking facilities, others reminding everyone of Christmas postal dates. But I have yet to see one post card, or a single poster detailing new Customs regulations in a post office. There has been no public discussion of the rules, no announcements, no warning. The Eu Customs rules apply a 23% charge plus fees on any package arriving from outside the EU. The Customs tax rate is calculated on the total cost of the package, meaning that the 23% charge is applied to the value of the items mailed plus postage fees and insurance. That’s a massive tax increase on shipping costs and it has been imposed on Irish families without the slightest warning. Families all over Ireland are right now receiving large Irish Customs bills for Christmas packages from their loved ones all over the world. It’s not a great time of the year for anyone to received unexpected tax bills. Can you imagine having to make the decision about whether to pay the Customs Tax or have the packages returned to sender? It’s not a pleasant experience. This is heartbreaking and totally unnecessary.

In a way we were the lucky ones. Due to the fracas over my daughter’s birthday parcel in early November we were forewarned. I was able to contact my family and explain that the exchange of gifts this Christmas wouldn’t be feasible. I can tell you, news of the new tax, and restrictions on parcels was deeply shocking to everyone. My family has been exchanging gifts and care packages across the Atlantic for the last 15 years. It is a really important part of our connection. When my children asked me why they couldn’t receive packages from their grandparents, I was at a loss for words as to why EU would do such a thing or the Irish government would enforce such punitive and discriminatory regulations on the exchange of gifts. I told them it seemed very petty and mean spirited to make it nearly impossible for family members outside the EU to send care packages.

The EU Customs rules have truly stolen Christmas for my Irish children and thousands of others with links to the Irish diaspora in the UK, USA, Australia and anywhere else outside the EU. The simple joy of giving and receiving at Christmas has been blocked by punitive taxes and the red tape associated with stringent new rules demanding that each item be weighed, described, assigned a value, affixed with the correct TARIC codes. All told, this means the loving exchange of gifts between grandparents and grandchildren throughout the Irish Diaspora is broken.

This can be fixed. The rules can be simplified for non-commercial shipments and the tax-free total for gifts could be raised. Who on earth would bother to pay expensive postage for gifts worth a few euros to try to slip under the meagre 45 euro limit for goods and postage combined? How could you send a Christmas package with that incredibly low value limit? Are family members expected to send multiple packages, one for each gift at today’s postage rates? How would you feel knowing that gift recipients would have a large tax bill on receipt?

Another concern is that large international retailers can work the system in a way that granny and grandpa sending their care packages can’t manage. For transactions arriving from outside the EU, Amazon omits local tax charges and estimates EU destination charges so that the end result is that the consumer is not double taxed. With the result that packages sent from Amazon are tax efficient, whereas packages from granny and grandpa are double taxed. I know my parents like to send lovely local crafts and artisan goods such as maple syrup from the local upstate New York farm, just as my care packages are full of Irish made goodies such as pottery from Penny’s Pottery Cafe in Ventry.  We won’t shop Amazon or pay the new EU Customs tax so we’re out of luck.

I can’t be sure, but I wonder if perhaps that is the point – perhaps the EU is bestowing monopoly power on the gigantic international retailers quite on purpose to force everyone and anyone who wants to send parcels into the EU to buy Amazon. Whether intended or not the effect the new EU rules penalise local shopping with double taxation and line the pockets of big international retailers such as Amazon.

I have spoken to enough friends and neighbours to know that I am not the only one frustrated and astounded by the red tape and the punitive taxes on gifts purchased abroad. It’s a real mistake to underestimate the reputational damage and ill will this has created for both the Irish government and the EU.

I have tried my best over the past few weeks to track down information, understand what has happened and what might be done to fix this problem. I contacted both An Post and Irish Customs. An Post said contact Customs with your complaint. Customs said it was nothing to do with them, I should contact An Post. In truth they are both right. The EU Customs rules have nothing to do with either An Post or Irish Customs. These are Irish government employees enforcing EU rules. They are not Irish rules or regulations. It has slowly dawned on me that neither An Post or Irish Customs can be responsive in any real way to our concerns, because in this instance, they are functioning as EU agencies not Irish agencies. They’ve been directed to enforce these rules, but they didn’t make them and are not responsible for them.

Of the EU MEPs I contacted about this issue. Grace O’Sullivan responded saying yes she was aware An Post would have difficulty with packages from outside the EU and suggested I contact An Post with any issues. I found that an odd and totally inadequate response and told her so. It’s not An Post’s job to challenge EU regulations, it’s our Irish MEPs job. MEP Dierdre Clune’s office reported that they were unaware of the new EU Customs rules, but would look into it and get back to me.

Where to from here? These are some of the questions I will be pursuing answers to. Who receives this EU Customs Tax? Why is the tax-free gift limit so low? Do we not have double tax treaties with the US and UK? Why are families expected to pay tax on goods both in the USA and Ireland? Why are such stringent taxes and regulations placed on gifts between private residences? I will keep pressing MEPs.

You can share this story as widely as possible. I wrote to the Irish Times and the Irish Independent news rooms, neither of which were interested in this story. We can continue to throw light on this issue and make our case with Irish representatives of the people.

The EU puts Scrooge to shame this Christmas. The Irish government allowed it to. We all deserve better.


Clare O’Toole writes from Wicklow

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