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National treasure “Member states should decide what is important for their national heritage”

09/04/2014

Some 40,000 cultural objects are illegally removed from EU countries every year and only a handful of them are ever returned. On 10 April, the EP's culture committee votes on an informal deal with governments to update EU legislation to facilitate the return of these objects. Ahead of the vote, we talked to Marie-Christine Vergiat, a French member of the GUE/NGL group who is responsible for steering these plans through Parliament, to ask her how these changes will improve the situation.

Since 1993 only 15 return proceeding have been initiated and only seven of them were successful. Why so few and what will change?

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It is clear that this legislation has not worked. But we have to consider the context: the 1993 directive was created when the EU's internal borders were being abolished. It aimed to protect member states' national heritage, their most prestigious cultural goods.

One of the main problems is the annex of the current directive, listing which cultural goods could be subject to return proceedings. This meant in a way that member states were not free to decide which objects they considered an important part of their cultural heritage and should be considered as national treasures. We have decided to do away with the annex.

The other problem is the thresholds for the age and financial value of objects, especially those subject to trafficking, such as paintings. Only very expensive paintings qualify for return proceedings. It doesn't make sense, because it is up to each member state to decide what is important for their national heritage, as stated in the treaties.

This legislation applies to cultural goods unlawfully removed after 1993. Why 1993 and what about those stolen before this date?

It corresponds to the abolishment of the EU's internal borders. The improved directive will make it possible to return objects that have been removed unlawfully before 1993, but member states will have to come to an agreement. The procedure will work only if they reach an agreement.

Could you give some examples of important cultural objects which till now could not be returned due to the loopholes in the legislation?

There are very few examples. Very often member states decide not to launch proceedings because of the thresholds. The European Commission mentioned a request by Hungary, which wanted to see a 17th century painting, sold outside the country for €46,000 in 2009, returned. As the threshold is set at €150,000, the procedure was not successful. Now there will be no threshold.

The plenary vote is scheduled for 16 April