The European Union has imposed instant restrictions on the export of personal protective equipment outside of its territory. Companies will be watching closely to see if the restrictions indicate a reflective turn towards forms of protectionism amidst the Covid-19 crisis, and might signify a wider and potentially significant shift in the EU’s attitude towards trade of key goods outside the single market.  

Under the new “Authorisation Scheme” sales of safety equipment will be restricted without authorisation by member state authorities for six weeks, effective immediately. The restrictions have been codified in Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/402. Items requiring authorisation currently include gloves, masks, face shields and protective clothing. 

The concern of importing countries outside the block will be that this represents the first step in a wider process of restricting EU exports amidst internal concerns about key supplies. The EU has combined the move with other radical steps, such as the recent ban on non-essential travel into the region for at least 30 days. Both restrictions have sought to head off fears of a “every country for itself” attitude taking place within the block, undermining the core principles of the single market. 

Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, announced that the measures were intended to meet vital demand arising from the spread of Covid-19. It would be part of a wider three-pronged strategy, including increasing production of the gear and efforts to ease exports according to need. 

Article 2 of the Implementing Regulation lists numerous factors that member states must consider when deciding whether to grant an authorisation. These focus primarily around supporting the activities of global institutions such as the World Health Organisation in responding to the crisis, as well as other multilateral humanitarian concerns. 

Licences to export are applied for member states, and are to be processed within five working days, which can be extended a further five days under exceptional circumstances. The Regulation sets out considerations member states are to take into account in considering whether to grant authorisations.

Given internal pressure from member states, it is likely that few authorisations will be granted amidst the current climate. Companies should watch closely to see if the current list of items subject to the restrictions slowly expands in the coming weeks, especially in respect of non-medical supplies.