When Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995, one of the conditions was that the alcohol monopolies be broken up under Brussels competition rules. Although the production and distribution sides of that bargain were honored, state-owned retail monopolies for drinks containing over a fixed alcohol volume continue: Systembolaget in Sweden and Alko in Finland are the only retailers allowed to sell spirits, wines and other strong drinks.
So it was a rare occurrence last week when the Finnish government coalition put forward a plan to raise the 4.7% abv (alcohol by volume) to 5.5% for products sold in normal, non-Alko sales outlets such as supermarkets, kiosks and other licensed retailers. In practice, passing the bill would see Class IV beer containing 5.5% alcohol introduced on store shelves.
Many people in Finland have welcomed this seemingly unique proposal in a tightly regulated market. What was truly unusual was a letter of support signed by ambassadors of fellow EU members, which was revealed by the Uusi Suomi news website. The embassies of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Portugal all signed a letter complimenting the government on its idea (see their signatures below) – and encouraged it to act quickly.
In the letter, which was sent last December, and adressed to Finnish Basic Services Minister Juha Rehula, the embassies stated that the reform will assist the EU’s single market concept to function better “though it is understood that important stocks will remain covered by Alko legislation”.
Critics have pointed out that the countries supporting the abv. hike in Finland have big interests in the alcoholic beverages industry.
Indeed, it is notable that Belgium and Denmark are beer giants: Belgian Anheuser-Busch is the world’s largest brewing company, whereas Danish Carlsberg is the fourth largest. The other European countries, all major wine producers, could benefit greatly if the alcohol limits were eased further.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health said to Talouselämä that this sort of lobbying or even commenting by ambassadors on a law proposal is unprecendented in the ministry’s history.
The reform has whisked up a whirlwind of worry in the Nordics: Systembolaget warned Finland of the possible consequences. Ex-Basic Services Minister Rehula voiced his concern to his Swedish colleague at this new policy proposal. Meanwhile in parliament, Finns Party MP Arja Juvonen (who resigned from her post in June) demanded that the government explain what effect the reform will have on foreign breweries competitive positions in Finland will be.