On 13 July 2017, the European Commission announced that it is proposing new rules to clamp down on the illegal import and trafficking of cultural goods from outside the EU, which it says is often linked to terrorist financing and other criminal activity. It comes just days after the Hamburg G20 called on countries to tackle terrorist finance, including the looting and smuggling of antiquities. The announcement states in part:

At the moment, the EU applies prohibitions on goods from Iraq and Syria but there is no general EU framework for the import of cultural goods. Current rules can be exploited by unscrupulous exporters and importers who can use the profits to fund illegal activities such as terrorism. Diverging and ineffective existing national legislation in this area means that EU action is necessary to ensure consistent treatment of imports of cultural goods all along the EU’s external borders. This will help prevent illicit cultural goods being brought into the EU, directly weakening the cultural, historical and archaeological life of the country of origin.

Plans for the new measures were first set out as part of the Commission’s European Agenda on Security and its 2016 action plan to strengthen the fight against the financing of terrorism. In February 2016, EU Member States recalled the importance of urgently enhancing the fight against the illicit trade in cultural goods and asked the Commission to propose legislative measures on this matter as soon as possible.

The new rules foresee a number of actions which should ensure that the importation of illicit cultural goods becomes much more difficult in the future:

  • A new common EU definition for ‘cultural goods’ at importation which covers a broad range of objects including archaeological finds, ancient scrolls, the remains of historical monuments, artwork, collections and antiques. The new rules will apply only to cultural goods that have been shown to be most at risk, i.e. those at least 250 years old at the moment of importation;
  • The introduction of a new licensing system for the import of archaeological objects, parts of monuments and ancient manuscripts and books. Importers will have to obtain import licences from the competent authorities in the EU before bringing such goods into the EU;
  • For other categories of cultural goods, importers will now have to go through a more rigorous certification system by submitting a signed statement or affidavit as proof that the goods have been exported legally from the third country.
  • 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.

Awareness campaigns targeting buyers of cultural goods, such as professional art market importers but also buyers of cultural goods in Europe are envisaged. In parallel, training sessions for customs officers and other law enforcement services will be organised by Member States in order to improve their ability to recognise suspicious shipments and to co-operate more efficiently in preventing illicit trade.

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.