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Five wine-producing EU countries are attempting to block Scotland’s plan to introduce a minimum price for alcohol.

Legal Dispute

The five opponents of First Minister Alex Salmond and the SNP’s plans say that the introduction of this policy could damage the entire wine and spirits industry in Europe, calling it ‘illegal, unfair and ineffective’. The nations, including France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria rely on selling and exporting wine to generate revenue and are concerned that the landmark policy could have a ripple effect, causing other nations to follow suit.

The changes could reduce the revenue of some of the biggest wine producing nations in Europe but the significance of the impact is unclear. In England plans to introduce the same minimum pricing were scrapped and of the 12 countries that have written to the EU on the issue, only Ireland vehemently supported the policy.

The European Commission (EC) is still considering the Scottish government’s request to be granted an exemption to trade regulations to enact the policy that was approved by the Scottish Parliament last year. The wine producing nations of Europe are arguing that Scotland’s plans breach European free trade law by discriminating against imported alcohol products.

Controversy

Under current European Law countries are allowed to restrict imports on public health grounds, but only if it does not represent a means of discrimination against another EU member nation. For a nation to introduce an import restriction it must prove that the policy is necessary and that there is no (less severe) alternative. The EC will respond to Scotland’s request to be made exempt from trade regulations in time and the outcome may result in a legal dispute as the SNP hope to push their landmark policy ahead.

But it’s not just the wine producers that have been riled by the plan to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. The legality of the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act, passed in May 2012, has already been challenged by the Scottish Whiskey Association (SWA) and two other trade groups. The SWA have lost the first round of a legal battle at the Court of Session in Edinburgh but an appeal has been launched. The issue could lead to the Supreme Court in London or even the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

An SWA spokeswoman said the policy would damage its trade and damage overseas producers, who rely on importing to Scotland and the UK, adding: “The Scottish Court of Session failed to give any consideration to the effect of minimum unit pricing on producers in other European Union member states.”

Public Health Targets

It is likely to be at least another 12 months before a minimum price could actually be applied. If passed, the price per unit of alcohol in Scotland is to be set at 50p, meaning a bottle of wine with an alcoholic strength of 12.5% would cost at least £4.69.

Ministers insist the measure is proportionate and necessary to tackle an alcohol abuse problem that puts a strain on police, courts, hospitals and families, costing Scotland an estimated £3.6bn each year. The policy is aimed at reducing Scotland’s alcohol problem not attacking other EU member nations pockets. However a lot of EU countries do not support the measures and are sceptical of the impact of minimum pricing as a mechanism for change.

The political and legal battle will continue will in to next year ahead of the Scottish referendum on Independence in September.

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