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Abstract

Trade saves lives' could have been the headline. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) hit so hard, quickly and across so many nations at the same time, that many countries not only rushed to produce and import, but also imposed export restrictions on protective masks, ventilators and other products they were running out of. On one count, as of 26 April 2020, at least seventy-five governments had banned or limited exports of medical supplies and medicines. The impact and pros and cons of such export restrictions have been discussed elsewhere. What this contribution seeks to do is to set out the options and limits under international trade agreements. Section II discusses export restrictions under EU law, first within and then outside the EU. Section III turns to WTO agreements, discussing both obligations in respect of export restrictions, and a number of exceptions explicitly provided for. It also refers to trade remedies as a possible response to export restrictions. Section IV briefly examines preferential trade agreements. Section V concludes, highlighting the importance of transparency and the limits of law and enforcement procedures when it comes to emergency measures, especially those enacted on a temporary basis in the midst of a crisis. Economists have almost universally condemned the recent surge in export restrictions. The main take-away point when looking at what international law currently provides for is, however, that it offers countries a great deal of leeway to enact such restrictions especially during a pandemic. One question for further research and negotiations is whether this wiggle room ought to be reduced to effectively address the next pandemic. Some recent commitments and proposals have been made in this direction. They are referenced in the conclusion.

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