The stance taken by the Advocate General, Antonio Tizzano, could have far-reaching consequences for Swedes’ right to import alcohol from other EU countries.
According to Tizzano, the monopoly held by the state alcohol retailer Systembolaget means that alcohol producers in other countries could be discriminated against. A simple example would be if Systembolaget refused a request for a particular type of drink from another EU country.
If Systembolaget says no, said the Advocate General, the customer has no other alternatives. For that reason, the import ban is not a way for Systembolaget to control demand – rather, it is an insurmountable obstacle for Swedes wishing to buy alcoholic drinks from other member states.
The European Commission decided in summer 2004 to bring Sweden before the European Court of Justice for maintaining a ban on Swedish consumers using independent intermediaries to import alcohol.
In effect, that meant that ordering booze from abroad via the internet, since private individuals are allowed to bring alcoholic drinks into Sweden for their own use, if they themselves travel and bring the goods physically with them.
Consumers are not allowed to ask other people to import alcohol on their behalf, even if they are prepared to pay the Swedish excise duties due.
But the Swedish government maintained that “the ban on private imports of alcoholic beverages is in compliance with European law since it is an integral and non-discriminatory part of the Swedish state’s retail monopoly for alcoholic beverages and is necessary for the protection of public health”.
The EU took the position that Sweden’s ban on alcohol imports broke laws on the freedom of movement of goods and services in the Community.
The Advocate General agreed with the Swedish government that the issue fell under article 31, regulating state monopolies. However, he still judged Sweden’s position to be illegal – although his recommendation to the court is not binding.
The issue came to the attention of the EU Court after Sweden’s Supreme Court requested a preliminary verdict on how the law should be interpreted. That verdict will be used by the Swedish court in a case brought by a number of Swedes whose wine imported from Spain was confiscated by customs.