The common rules for imports were established by Council Regulation of 22 December 1994, codified in 2009 [Regulation 260/2009]. They apply to imports of products originating in third countries, with the exception, on the one hand, of textiles subject to specific import arrangements, discussed under the heading of sectoral measures of the commercial policy, and, on the other, products originating from certain third countries, including Russia, North Korea and the People's Republic of China, mentioned below. Apart from those exceptions, imports into the European Union are free and not subject to any quantitative restrictions. The Regulation strives to establish a balance between a European market normally open to the world following the conclusion of the Uruguay Round and more rapid and simplified procedures in case of a risk of serious injury caused by imports of a product to European producers.
The Regulation establishes a European information and consultation procedure. The examination of the trend of imports, of the conditions under which they take place and of serious injury or threat of serious injury to European producers resulting from such imports covers the following factors in practice: a) the volume of imports; b) the price of imports; and c) the consequent impact on the European producers of similar or directly competitive products as indicated by trends in certain economic factors such as production, capacity utilisation, stocks, sales, market share, prices and so on.
Where the trend in imports of a product originating in a third country threatens to cause injury to European producers, import of that product may be subject, as appropriate, to prior or retrospective European surveillance. Products under prior European surveillance may be put into free circulation only on production of an import document endorsed by the competent authority designated by Member States and valid throughout the EU, regardless of the Member State of issue. The surveillance may be confined to imports into one or more regions of the EU (regional surveillance).
Where a product is imported into the European Union in such increased quantities and/or on such terms as to cause, or threaten to cause, serious injury to European producers, the Commission may, acting at the request of a Member State or on its own initiative take safeguard measures, i.e.: limit the period of validity of import documents required in compliance with surveillance measures; alter the import rules for the product in question by making its release for free circulation conditional on production of an import authorisation granted under certain provisions and in certain limits laid down by the Commission. As regards Members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), safeguard measures are taken only when the two conditions indicated above (quantities and terms of imports) are met. No safeguard measure may be applied to a product originating in a developing country Member of the WTO as long as that country's share of European imports of the product concerned does not exceed 3% and that the import share of all developing countries does not account for more than 9% of such imports.
Following the information and consultation procedure, when trends in imports appear to call for surveillance or protective measures, the Commission must be informed of this fact by the Member States. This information must contain all available evidence, drawn from certain specific criteria. The Commission then passes on forthwith this information to all the Member States. Consultations may be held either at the request of a Member State or on the initiative of the Commission. These consultations must take place within eight working days of the Commission receiving the information. They take place within an advisory committee consisting of representatives of each Member State and chaired by a representative of the Commission [see section 23.1]. These consultations concern notably: a) the terms and conditions of import, import trends and the various aspects of the economic and commercial situation as regards the product in question; and b) the measures, if any, to be taken.
When, after consultations have taken place, it is apparent to the Commission that there is sufficient evidence, it initiates an investigation within one month of receipt of information from a Member State and publishes a notice in the Official Journal of the European Union, giving a summary of the information received and asking for any relevant information, including the views of the interested parties. The Commission seeks all information it deems to be necessary and, where it considers it appropriate, after consulting the Committee, endeavours to check the information with importers, traders, agents, producers, trade associations and organisations. The Member States supply the Commission at its request and following procedures laid down by it with all information at their disposal on developments in the market of the product being investigated.
The decision to impose EU or regional, prior or retrospective surveillance is taken by the Commission. In the case of retrospective surveillance, however, any Member State may refer the Commission's decision to the Council, which, acting by a qualified majority, may confirm, amend or revoke it. The imposition of surveillance measures implies a monthly communication by the Member States to the Commission of certain information on the imports in question. Surveillance measures are of limited duration. Failing provisions to the contrary, they cease to be valid at the end of the second half calendar year following that in which they were introduced. In any case, the European surveillance measures are few and far between, concerning mostly steel products [Regulation 2248/94 and Regulation 2385/2002].
Any Member State may also refer to the Council the Commission's decision on safeguard measures. The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may confirm, amend or revoke the decision of the Commission. It may also transform the European surveillance measures into safeguard measures. The duration of safeguard measures must be limited to the period of time necessary to prevent or remedy serious injury and to facilitate adjustment on the part of European producers. The period should not exceed four years. The combination of safeguard measures and anti-dumping or anti-subsidy measures on the same imported product should not result in those measures having an effect greater than that intended by the EU's trade defence policy instruments [Regulation 452/2003].
In addition to the general common rules for imports, there still exist some specific rules. The most important of such rules apply to imports from certain third countries, notably Russia and the other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States, North Korea and Vietnam [Regulation 625/2009]. These rules establish the liberalisation of imports, namely the absence of any quantitative restrictions on the part of EU Member States. The European procedures on information and investigation, as well as the safeguard measures concerning imports from these countries are quite similar to those set out by the general common rules applicable to imports in the EU. European importers can now use a uniform import licence, valid throughout the EU. Other specific import regimes concern textile products and the agricultural sector and are examined under the heading of "Sectoral commercial policy measures".