On 19 December 2018, the European Commission announced that it welcomes the political agreement reached by the European Parliament and EU Member States on preventing the illicit trade in cultural goods, in particular when it contributes to the financing of terrorism. The announcement said, in part:

The EU already prohibits the import of cultural goods from Iraq and Syria but there is no general EU framework for the import of cultural goods from other countries. This lack of rules can be exploited by unscrupulous exporters and importers who circumvent prohibitions by exporting the goods into the EU from a different non-EU country. Common EU rules will ensure consistent treatment of imports of cultural goods all along the Union’s external borders. This will help prevent illicit cultural goods being brought into the EU and from directly weakening the cultural, historical and archaeological heritage of the country of origin.

The following actions shall ensure that the importation of illicit cultural goods becomes much more difficult:

  • Customs authorities will also have the power to seize and retain goods when it cannot be demonstrated that the cultural goods in question have been legally exported.
  • A new common EU definition for ‘cultural goods’ at importation which covers a broad range of objects including archaeological finds, the remains of historical monuments, manuscripts and rare books, artwork, collections and antiques. The new rules will apply to cultural goods that have been shown to be most at risk.
  • The introduction of a new licensing system for the import of archaeological objects and elements of monuments that have been dismantled. Importers will have to obtain import licences from competent cultural authorities in the EU before they can bring such goods into the Union.
  • For less sensitive categories of cultural goods, importers will now have to exercise a higher degree of due diligence when purchasing the items as they will be required to submit to customs a signed statement or affidavit that the goods have been exported legally from the third country.

EU Member States will be obliged to ensure that effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties are in place for those who do not follow the rules, in particular for anyone who makes false statements or submits false information.

The rules provisionally agreed are even more relevant given the celebration this year of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 and the 50th anniversary of the EU’s Customs Union. Similarly, the protection of cultural heritage has been defined as a key objective of the Joint Communication ‘Towards an EU strategy for international cultural relations’.

Next steps

The provisional agreement must now be formally approved by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. Further technical work will also be needed in order to adopt the necessary implementing measures which will lay down procedural details.