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Snus snub for Sweden at EU court

The EU court in Luxemburg has dealt a blow to Swedish national pride, balance of trade figures, and, depending on who you believe, European public health. On Tuesday, the court's lawyers recommended that the ban on snus (a Swedish form of snuff tobacco inserted under the top lip) introduced in 1992 should stay in place.

Wednesday’s GP reported that the statement only represented a recommendation, but that it was unlikely that the court would deviate in its final ruling later this year.

It’s a major blow for snus giant, Swedish Match. They had been eyeing new markets such as Britain and Germany as smoking regulations across Europe become increasingly restrictive.

The lawyer leading the investigation, Leendert Geelhoeds, gave two reasons for maintaining the ban: it prevents tobacco use spreading to new groups; and it’s the only way to protect the health of citizens.

The second of these reasons was the real twist of the knife. Only last week, Sweden was taken to task by EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein over its restrictive alcohol policies. Apparently, then it was the free market which was more important than public health.

Christofer Fjellner, recently elected Moderate member of the EU parliament and proud ‘snuser’, disputed the health argument.

“An American study shows that 200,000 lives could be saved in Europe if snus was allowed,” he said.

Fjellner, who brought a thousand crowns worth of snus to Brussels in what was perhaps a misguided attempt to win over his new colleagues, was critical of the Swedish government.

“Parliament was unanimous in demanding an end to the snus ban, but Swedish Match have been left to fight Sweden’s cause at the EU court alone.”

Another Moderate EU parliamentarian, Gunnar Hökmark, was incandescant at the court’s announcement and accused the EU of hypocrisy. He fumed in Thursday’s GP:

“The EU bans tobacco advertising and runs anti-smoking campaigns, but at the same time pays nine billion crowns in support to southern Europe to produce 350,000 tons of tobacco.” He demanded an immediate end to these subsidies.

Publicly at least, Swedish Match, do not share the all-consuming pessimism. Company secretary, Bo Aulin, said:

“The court can follow [Geelhoed’s] recommendations to the full, or in part. Or they can reverse them. We’re waiting for the final ruling.”

Even if they fail in their bid to export to the EU, their plans to expand their operations to Russia and Asia will offer some consolation.

For those of you wondering, Sweden craftily negotiated themselves an exemption from the snus ban when they joined the EU in 1995. The current investigation will not affect this. Swedish snus can be bought legally in Norway – and illegally in Denmark and Finland.

Sources: Göteborgs Posten

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Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU’s minimum wage plan?

EU labour ministers meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss the European Commission's planned minimum wage directive. Why is the proposal causing such unease in Sweden?

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU's minimum wage plan?
Customers visit a branch of McDonalds in Stockholm. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

What’s happening on Monday? 

EU ministers responsible for employment and social affairs, including Sweden’s Eva Nordmark, will meet in Brussels for a two day meeting at which they hope to adopt a European Council position on a directive imposing “adequate minimum wages” on all EU countries. Once the Council, which represents member states, has agreed a common position, it will begin negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission. 

What’s Sweden’s position on the minimum wage directive? 

Sweden has been, along with Denmark, one of the most vocal opponents of the directive, arguing that it threatens the country’s collective bargaining model, in which unions and employers set wages without government interference. 

But on Friday, the government dropped its opposition, together with country’s umbrella union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, arguing that a compromise proposal put forward by the European Commission would protect Sweden’s wage autonomy. 

A majority of the members of the Swedish parliament’s employment committee are backing the government’s new stance, but three opposition parties, the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats, are opposed to the change in position. 

“I am extremely happy that there is broad support and majority backing for us to continue with the negotiations, to stand up for what we have come to so far, and do everything we can to protect the Swedish wage-setting model,” Sweden’s employment minister Eva Nordmark (S) said after a meeting with the employment committee on Friday. 

READ ALSO: Why Sweden doesn’t have a minimum wage and how to ensure you’re fairly paid

Why did Sweden make its dramatic last-minute u-turn? 

Sweden’s government judges that, after the compromise, the directive will no longer mean that Sweden is forced to bring in a statutory minimum wage. 

“I consider, together with experts in the civil service and experts in the unions and employer organisations, that there is no requirement for Sweden to bring in a statutory minimum wage,” Nordmark told TT. 

She added that agreeing to sign up to the directive would give Sweden the ability to take a deeper part in the negotiations giving it the power to make sure that important exceptions are made for Sweden. 

Denmark, however, is still resolved to say ‘no’ to the directive. 

Surely a minimum wage is a good thing? Isn’t Sweden supposed to be a high-wage economy? 

Sweden is certainly a high-wage economy, but that is largely thanks to its model of collective bargaining, under which wages are generally set by negotiations between employees and employers for each sector. 

If the directive sets a precedent allowing governments, either at a national or EU level, to interfere in this process, or for those who disagree with the result of the collective bargaining agreement to appeal to government entities, it could undermine the Swedish system. 

Who is still worried? 

More or less everyone. While the Swedish Trade Union Confederation is supporting the government’s decision, its vice chair Therese Guovelin, described the European Commission’s compromise proposal as simply “the least bad compromise proposal” the union had seen.

She has previously described the European Parliament’s position that the directive should apply to the entire European Union as “a catastrophe”.

“That would mean that a disgruntled employee who is not part of the union, could take their case to court, and would then end up at the EU Court, and it would then be them who would decide on what should be a reasonable salary,” she explained. “In Sweden, it’s the parties [unions and employers’ organisations] that decide on that.”

Tobias Billström, group leader for the Moderate Party, said he was concerned at the role of the European Court in the directive. 

“There are big risks with this,” he told TT. “The EU court might decide to interpret this directive as applying across the board, and then we might end up with what we wanted to avoid. The Moderates have as a result been against this development, and it’s important that Sweden gets to decide itself on the Swedish labour market.”

What might happen now? 

The European Parliament might try to remove the wording and the exemptions which Sweden hopes will allow its employers and unions to retain control of wage-setting. 

Mattias Dahl, chief executive of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents employers’ groups, said that the government needed to stand its ground in the upcoming negotiations, reiterating that he would have preferred that the European Commission had not sought to give itself such a role in the Labour Market.  

Nordmark said that Sweden did not intend to back down to the parliament. 

“These are important red lines for us. If there are demands from the European Parliament that push in a different direction, we can lean on the Swedish opinion and what we stand for,” she said. 

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