Export Control and Measures Affecting Trade in Goods in Global COVID-19 Crisis: The Emergence of Sanitary Protectionism in the European Union

6 Pages Posted: 11 Aug 2021

See all articles by Paola Mariani

Paola Mariani

Bocconi University - Department of Law

Date Written: July 2, 2021


One of the side effects of the COVID-19 crisis is the resurgence of export restrictions. Many States worldwide adopted temporary restrictions on exports of certain medical goods and some foodstuffs to mitigate actual or potential shortages of critical supplies. 98 States out of 130 adopted temporary measures affecting trade since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. The measures range from export bans to licensing requirements and the right of first refusal for the exporting country's government.

The high number of States adopting some form of export control concerning the so-called "COVID goods." entails exploring the phenomenon to understand better the legitimacy of the measures in the multilateral framework of the WTO and their impact on the global trading system. The practice of the European Union in this matter is particularly interesting. The EU was one of the first regional areas heavily hit by the COVID-19 and its Member States among the first nations adopting export control measures. At the very beginning of the pandemic, some EU member States adopted export restrictions affecting intra-EU trade. The risk of a race to close the borders to essential goods in the internal market, a heavily integrated space, urged the Commission to take action to preserve the integrity of the single market and the free movement of goods, introducing a mechanism of control of exports of COVID goods to non-EU countries as a quid pro quo for the 'full and effective lifting of all forms of internal bans or restrictions within the internal market.

The EU Member States briefly experienced the freedom to adopt export restrictions at the pandemic's beginning unilaterally. Then, thanks to a political agreement between them and the Commission, the limitations in adopting export control measures according to a uniform export authorisation scheme regulated and supervised by the Commission.

This paper aims at studying the export control regime for COVID-19 vaccines adopted by the EU at the end of January 2021 and still in place at the time of writing. The case of restrictions in the trade of vaccines is particularly interesting considering the quite unanimous consensus in the international community that to bring this pandemic to an end, vaccines must be available to people in all countries and not just in producer ones. Restrictions on the trade of vaccines aim at protecting the population of the producer countries adopting them, but at the same time leaving alone the countries without vaccine production capacity means to delay the recovery for all. Furthermore, vaccine production is highly specialised and concentrated in few countries; keeping markets open is a condition to distribute vaccines broadly. The EU export control regime will be analysed and compared with the export control policies adopted by other major producers of the COVID-19 vaccines to assess its impact on the global distribution of such vaccines.

Keywords: COVID-19 crisis, European Union response, Export control measures, External trade restrictions, Export authorization schemes

JEL Classification: F13, F53, K33

Suggested Citation

Mariani, Paola, Export Control and Measures Affecting Trade in Goods in Global COVID-19 Crisis: The Emergence of Sanitary Protectionism in the European Union (July 2, 2021). Bocconi Legal Studies Research Paper No. 3901944, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3901944 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3901944

Paola Mariani (Contact Author)

Bocconi University - Department of Law ( email )

Via Roentgen, 1
Milan, Milan 20136

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