The European Commission officially declared yesterday that it “has a problem” with the proposals and joined five European Union nations in submitting legal questions over the moves, which critics warn infringe strict laws protecting the free trade of goods across the Continent.
Last night, a spokesman at the EC’s Industry and Enterprise Directorate confirmed for the first time that it had identified difficulties over the Scottish Government proposals, which have been presented in an “opinion” submitted to Edinburgh. Five EU wine-producing nations – France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria – have also submitted their own opinions to the EC which are also understood to contain their own objections to the measures.
Of the EC’s own opinion, the spokesman said last night: “The content is confidential, but what we can say is that we have a problem with the compatibility of the minimum pricing plans under Community law.”
He added: “We fully share the political objective to fight against the abuse of alcohol. But the specific measure provided by the draft legislation causes problems with the compatibility with the EU Treaty.”
The spokesman said the EC now wanted to avoid an “infringement procedure” which could see the plans – if they go ahead – ending up at the European Court of Justice.
He added that a three-month period of consultation with the Scottish and UK governments would now commence, with the aim of finding a resolution to the legal problems.
He said: “We want to collaborate with the Scottish and UK authorities too find the best way to fight against alcohol.”
However, it now appears almost certain that if the Scottish Government proceeds with the plans, it will involve a potentially lengthy legal battle within the EU.
Drinks industry chiefs last night said the fact that the EC had decided to get involved in the case demonstrated the level of concern across the Continent over the plans.
They claimed a “wall of opposition” now stood between the SNP and their efforts to bring the reform into law. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has already raised a petition for a judicial review at the Court of Session and made a complaint to the European Commission.
However, the Scottish Government insisted it remained confident it could persuade the EC that their plan was compatible with the law.
The EC’s move comes after the Scottish Parliament voted earlier this year to introduce a minimum price on all alcohol, with the aim of pushing up the price of low-cost drink.
Ministers claim it will save lives and massively cut the enormous cost of alcohol-related crime and poor health which afflict Scotland. The minimum price is to be set at 50p per unit.
Prime Minister David Cameron is reported to be in favour of introducing a 40p per unit of alcohol minimum price in England.
However, critics in the drinks industry have long claimed the measure contravenes EC treaty law. Wine-exporting nations such as Bulgaria, which trade on a cheaper price, argue they will lose their competitive edge in Scottish stores if they are forced to increase their prices.
Nonetheless, Scottish ministers have insisted that these trade rules are superseded by the public health case for increasing the price of drink in Scotland.
The government agreed to notify the EC, under EU law, giving both the Commission and other countries the chance to express a view.
As well as the detailed opinions that were submitted by the deadline this week, a further seven countries – Denmark, Germany, Holland, Poland, Romania, Ireland and Austria – have issued comments on the proposals as well. There now follows a three-month consultation period during which Scottish and UK officials will have the chance to raise their case with the EC.
A Scottish Government spokesman said last night: “We believe that minimum pricing will save lives and reduce the harm caused by alcohol misuse and we also believe minimum unit pricing is the most effective pricing measure.
“We are confident that we can demonstrate, under European law, that the minimum pricing of alcohol is justified in Scotland on the basis of public health and social grounds.”
However, a spokesman for the SWA said: “The association’s view that minimum unit pricing creates a trade barrier across Europe in breach of EU law is clearly shared widely across the EC. We remain committed to tackling alcohol misuse and we would like to work in partnership with the Scottish Government. But minimum pricing is clearly not the way forward.”
However, Dr Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland accused the SWA of misrepresenting the legal position.
She said: “They have mounted a major lobbying campaign in Europe to encourage member states to oppose Scotland’s plans to introduce minimum pricing arguing that minimum pricing will discriminate against imported alcoholic drinks. This is not the case as it will apply equally to all drinks.”
The Scottish Government is likely to use a dossier of statistics about the cost of alcohol to persuade EU countries and the EC that public health issues in Scotland should over-ride free trade rules. It calculates that alcohol misuse costs the country at least £2.25 billion per year in extra services and lost productivity.
It has also warned that alcohol-related death rates in Scotland have doubled in the past 15 years.