Why European goats may welcome the late arrival of 1992: David Bowen examines the obvious and hidden changes due with the EC's single market

ON Friday, 1992 arrives. It is a year late, but that is one of the least confusing things about '1992', as the Single European Market process used to be called. For 1 January 1993 is in reality just one more marker in a process that started in 1985 and will continue until at least 1995.

Nevertheless, there will be a raft of changes that are introduced either on Thursday or on Friday, some obvious, others less so. They range from the abolition of customs posts to the harmonisation of the rules governing trade in goats.

The best news is that for the first six months of next year Britain will not have a trade deficit. With no customs posts to collect export and import information, statistics will vanish until a new system is set up.

The most visible change will be at borders, where customs posts will change or vanish. In Britain new blue channels have been carved out between the green and red ones: they will have customs officers, but their job will be to offer help and a cheery wave to people arriving from the Continent. The Germans are closing all but 19 of their 80 customs posts - the ones staying open are to provide information - and the Belgians are shutting three quarters of theirs. But beware the French: there will be no posts, but customs officers, whose job is to check on technical standards as well as smuggling, will be roaming anywhere up to 60 miles from the border.

If this is the most symbolic change, it could also be the most shambolic. It is uncertain what will happen in Italy, for example, where the Guardia di Finanza, the fiscal police force, has always operated at the border. 'It is pretty clear they shouldn't be there, but no one knows where they should go,' one British official said.

Lorry drivers and their employers will nevertheless be relieved to find they can whizz through previously obstructive customs posts. The flipside of this will be that a burdensome new VAT regime has been introduced, because the old system under which refunds are made at the border will no longer be possible. Overnight, companies will have to incorporate all VAT calculations into their own accounting procedures, and will have to claim refunds by sending off VAT returns every three months.

The cost and complexity of installing the computer software has been difficult for companies. More important, not all European Community countries have laws in place to cope with the new system. Again Italy is fingered as a laggard, and a few months of chaos are cheerfully predicted. But at least the depressingly acronymed Single Administrative Document will disappear.

Another obscure beast that will die on 1 January is the Monetary Compensation Amount, a levy charged or refund paid when agricultural products cross borders. This is part of the Common Agricultural Policy, and as such is wildly complicated.

But its disappearance will mean that a number of products, including Mars Bars, butter and sugar, will become more expensive in Britain as the change works itself through to the supermarket shelves.

The trade balance vanishes with the abolition of customs' statistics-gathering service. Instead, companies will be asked to say on their VAT returns what they have bought and sold to other EC states.

It will be fascinating to see what has happened to the trade balance when new figures are published from the summer. If export numbers are fiddled as energetically as VAT figures, the swing could be quite impressive.

(Photograph omitted)