The European Commission has opened an infringement procedure against eight EU Member States – Cyprus, Finland, France, Lithuanian, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain – urging them to incorporate into their national laws new legislation on returning cultural items illegally taken from other member countries. The Commission criticized these countries that they failed to incorporate European acquis on the restitution of cultural items. “The illegal traffic of cultural objects is a problem that affects every EU country,” the Commission said in a statement.
The new rules are a revamped version of the 1993 original and aim to reconcile the principle of the free movement of goods with the protection of national heritage. The original suffered from the “side effects” of the single market, which made it difficult for Member States to prevent art from being moved around within the Schengen area. Now, under the new version, it should be much easier for EU countries to address this problem and claim their national cultural items from other EU Member States.
The directive should have been implemented into national legislations by mid-December last year but the eight countries failed to do so. If they still fail to comply, the EU executive may initiate a legal action against them. Art has long been a hotly debated topic among EU countries and some of the claimed items belong to the most coveted pieces of art in the world, for example the Mona Lisa, which Italy has asked to be returned by France or the Elgin Marbles claimed by Greece but currently housed in a British museum.