European court slams Sweden’s alcohol import ban

A group of Swedish wine lovers could crack open the champagne on Tuesday after a European court ruled that a Swedish ban on individuals importing alcohol is an unjustified bar to the movement of goods.

In a verdict reached on Tuesday morning, the Luxembourg-based Court of Justice concluded that the ban was not appropriate for attaining its stated objective of reducing alcohol consumption and protecting young people against the harmful effects of alcohol.

Under Swedish law, retail sales of alcoholic beverages in Sweden are carried out under a monopoly held by state-run alcohol retailer Systembolaget.

Only Systembolaget and wholesalers authorized by the State may import alcoholic beverages.

The prohibition against individuals means that a person wishing to import alcohol from other EU member states must do so exclusively through Systembolaget.

Following the removal of most alcohol import restrictions within the EU, people across the continent have increasingly been crossing borders to buy cheaper booze in neighboring countries.

This has especially become a problem in Sweden and other northern European countries where alcohol taxes and prices have traditionally been the highest.

“The state has been caught with its pants down. They took a gamble that this would stand up in court and set their sights on private individuals, despite the fact that there was considerable uncertainty,” said Ola Wiklund, a lawyer representing several people who have imported alcohol over the internet.

Ulf Bernitz, professor in European law at Stockholm University, was surprised by Tuesday’s decision in the landmark Rosengren Case.

“This is a major sensation and something that I had not at all expected. This will of course eventually lead to consequences for Systembolaget’s position,” he said.

Noting that Sweden’s retail monopoly Systembolaget does not in practice refuse orders by reference to maximum quantities of alcohol, the court stated that “the prohibition of importation is less a method of limiting alcohol consumption generally than a means of favouring Systembolaget as a channel for the distribution of alcoholic beverages”.

Tuesday’s judgment came as a surprise to many after the court’s advocate general recommended in November last year that the European Court uphold Swedish law in the Rosengren Case.

The case was brought by Klas Rosengren and other Swedish nationals who ordered cases of Spanish wine through a Danish website.

The wine was confiscated by the customs authorities and criminal proceedings were brought.

The Swedish Supreme Court asked the European court whether the Swedish legislation was compatible with Community law.

The EU court took the view that “the fact that Systembolaget may refuse an order from a consumer to import alcoholic beverages amounts to a quantitative restriction on imports.”

In November 2005 Sweden ran a cheeky campaign aimed at convincing the European Union of the public health benefits of its strict state-run alcohol monopoly.

“Dear Mr. Barroso, here’s why you should seriously consider cutting down on drinking” was the provocative title of the campaign addressed to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

See also: One Last Swig? – The Local’s editorial at the time of the 2005 campaign.

TT/AFP/The Local