THE Scottish Government’s plans to introduce a minimum price for alcohol are, in principle, “entirely compatible” with European Union law, Nicola Sturgeon has been told by senior EU officials.
A spokesperson for the health secretary said that Ms Sturgeon and the Health Commissioner in Brussels had held talks on the issue, and there was no reason the policy would be at odds with EU law if key conditions were met.
The SNP administration is planning to introduce a minimum price per unit, but critics have argued that the move would be illegal under European law.
Moves to bring in the policy two years ago were blocked by opposition parties, but with an SNP majority now controlling Holyrood, the legislation is likely to be backed by MSPs over the course of the parliament.
Opponents of the measure – both political and within the drinks industry – have argued that the move was probably illegal under European law.
Given the SNP’s ability to push the measure through Holyrood and Ms Sturgeon’s determination to do so, claims that the move will be allowed under European law are likely to bolster the SNP’s argument and remove perhaps the last potential stumbling block to the move becoming law.
Ms Sturgeon was in Brussels yesterday where she met with EU health commissioner John Dalli and other senior officials.
Following the meeting, a spokesman for the health secretary said they had had “very good, productive discussions” about minimum pricing.
The spokesman added: “The very clear message from the commission was confirmation that minimum pricing for alcohol is entirely compatible in principle with EU law.
“The discussions were very positive and basically confirmed what we’ve always said. We’ve asserted minimum pricing in principle is entirely compatible with EU law, provided that certain key tests are met, which is why we’re working very hard to ensure that proposals, when they are brought forward, are absolutely robust.”
The policy was defeated in the Scottish Parliament two years ago after opposition parties raised questions about the impact it would have on the country’s health and its compatibility with EU law.
In October, UK public health minister Anne Milton told a Westminster committee that the SNP’s plans were likely to contravene European free trade legislation.
She said: “I know Scotland is thinking about introducing it, and they will be challenged, and that will clarify the law. But our advice is that it is illegal.”
Then, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association’s chief executive, Jeremy Beadles, also said the move was “probably illegal under European law”, as did the Scotch Whisky Association.
Ms Sturgeon announced in October – at the SNP’s national conference in Inverness – that the policy would be brought back before Holyrood.
The Scottish Government has not announced what price per unit it will support, but 45p has been used to illustrate the proposals.
The Scotsman reported earlier this month that new research from Sheffield University showed that even that figure should be a “minimum” for ministers, who are expected to unveil their preference in the spring.
It was shown in the study that the figure would have less of an impact that previously thought – leading to a 3.5 per cent fall in consumption rather than the 4.3 per cent figure expected two years ago when the policy was before Holyrood.
The study also showed that if ministers were to double that figure to 90p per unit, the impact on cutting hospital admissions, reducing deaths and slash drink-related crime would be trebled.