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New commitment for customs in protecting cultural heritage

Last March, the European Parliament finally approved the regulation designed to protect cultural goods against smuggling and to put a stop to a source of terrorist financing.

Before now, there were no universal EU laws governing imports of cultural heritage.

The only European legislation on the trade of cultural goods concerned exports and the return of objects unlawfully removed from the EU.

The agreed rules will ensure that the EU Member States can now prevent the import and storage in the EU of cultural goods illegally exported from a non-EU country.

The regulation should ensure the protection against illicit trade in cultural goods and their loss or destruction.

Furthermore, it should help the prevention of terrorism financing and money laundering through the sale of pillaged cultural goods to buyers in the union.

The EU already prohibits the import of cultural goods from Iraq and Syria, but without a general EU framework for the import of cultural goods from other countries.

This deficit of rules could be exploited by unethical exporters and importers who circumvent prohibitions by exporting the goods into the EU from a different non-EU country.

Standard EU rules will guarantee a regular treatment of import of cultural goods all along the Union’s external borders.

The regulation covers cultural goods that are created or discovered outside the EU and are due to be released in free circulation or placed under a customs procedure other than transit.

The following measures should make the importation of illicit cultural goods much more complicated:

  • Customs authorities will 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 are most at risk.
  • The introduction of a new licensing system for the import of archaeological objects and parts of monuments that have been disassembled. Importers will have to obtain import licenses 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.
  • Information on cases where import licenses have been granted and importer statements issued will be stored in a centralized electronic database, which will be set up by the Commission and be accessible to all national authorities in the EU.

The 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.

Cecilia Carbonari