On July 13th of 2017, the European Commission proposed new rules to stop imports in the Union of cultural goods illicitly exported from their country of origin.
Cultural goods are items of which countries consider that they have great artistic, historical or archaeological value and which belong to the country's cultural heritage. Because of their value, it is very important to protect cultural goods from illegal trafficking.
The importance of the trade in cultural goods is two-fold:
The import of cultural goods into the EU can be considered illicit when those goods have been exported from a non-EU country illegally. It is the laws of the exporting country, be it the source country or an intermediate country which is a UNESCO Convention signatory, which will determine this.
However, for cultural goods exported from a third country which is neither the source country nor an intermediate country having signed and ratified the UNESCO Convention, the importer will have to prove that the initial export from the source country was licit.
Cultural goods imported from Iraq or Syria are already considered illegal where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of national or international law. Such imports are in violation of the prohibitions laid down by Regulations (EC) No 1210/2003 and (EU) No 36/2012.
The proposal will now be submitted to the European Parliament and the Council of the EU for adoption.
With the creation of the internal market on 1 January 1993 and the abolition of internal borders, European Union Member States were unable to prevent their national treasures leaving the EU through another Member State.
Two pieces of legislation were developed to prevent illicit trade in cultural goods.
1) Council Regulation (EC) No 116/2009 on the export of cultural goods ensures uniform controls at the EU's external borders by subjecting the export to the presentation of an export licence which is obtained with the competent authorities in the Member States and valid throughout the EU.
2) European Parliament and Council Directive 2014/60/EU on the return of cultural objects unlawfully removed from the territory of a Member State introduced arrangements enabling Member States to secure the return to their territory of cultural objects removed in breach of national measures
Internationally, the fight against illicit trafficking in cultural goods is regulated by various instruments, the most preeminent of which is the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
This Convention has, amongst others, the purpose of enabling the international community to protect cultural property against damage, theft, clandestine excavations, illicit import, export and transfer of ownership and trafficking.