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Procedure : 2006/0165(CNS)
Document stages in plenary
Document selected : A6-0148/2007

Texts tabled :

A6-0148/2007

Debates :

PV 22/05/2007 - 20
CRE 22/05/2007 - 20

Votes :

PV 23/05/2007 - 5.4
CRE 23/05/2007 - 5.4
Explanations of votes
PV 10/07/2007 - 8.36
CRE 10/07/2007 - 8.36
Explanations of votes

Texts adopted :

P6_TA(2007)0324

Debates
Tuesday, 22 May 2007 - Strasbourg OJ edition

20. Excise duty on alcohol (debate)
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  President. The next item is the report (A6-0148/2007) by Mrs Lulling, on behalf of the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, on the proposal for a Council directive amending Directive 92/84/EEC on the approximation of the rates of excise duty on alcohol and alcoholic beverages (COM(2006)0486 C6-0319/2006 2006/0165(CNS)).

 
  
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  László Kovács, Member of the Commission. Mr President, as you know, the Commission’s proposal under discussion follows the report presented by the Commission in May 2004 and the subsequent call by the Council of 12 April 2005 for the Commission to come forward with a proposal to revalorise the minimum rates of excise duty on alcohol and alcoholic beverages to compensate for inflation. Its sole purpose is to maintain the real value of the minimum rate; it is not a proposal aimed at harmonisation or convergence of rates.

I would like to begin by informing honourable Members of the discussions which took place in the Ecofin Council in November 2006. In the Council, there was strong resistance from a number of new Member States who claimed that they had had nothing to do with the point of departure for counting inflation of 1993, as they were not then part of the Community. I have some sympathy with this point of view and have therefore promoted a compromise, officially put forward by the Finnish Presidency, in the discussions with the Member States.

This compromise takes 1 May 2004, the date of accession of the 10 new Member States, as the point of departure, and results in a much lower rate of inflation. Instead of 31 %, the new proposed rate increase is only 4.5 %. Unfortunately, this compromise proposal was vetoed by one Member State, the Czech Republic – which, I might add, would be entirely unaffected by a 4.5 % revalorisation as the excise duty currently applied is higher. However, I am optimistic that, when the issue next returns to Council, the Czech position will have changed and that unanimity will be obtained.

Obviously, the impact of a 4.5 % revalorisation is minimal but, even so, transition periods will be available for the Member States affected. In the case of Bulgaria and Romania, whose accession took place on 1 January 2007, such transition periods will be very generous.

I would like to turn now to Mrs Lulling’s report, which certainly contains some fairly radical ideas. First, to repeat what I said at the very beginning, the Commission proposal is not aimed at harmonisation or convergence of rates, but is simply a revalorisation, which, under the compromise I mentioned, will take 2004 as the point of departure. Second, repealing the directive and abolishing minimum rates, as Mrs Lulling suggests, would have extreme consequences. For example, there would be no obligation at all for Member States to apply excise duties on alcohol, which in turn would create more distortion of the internal market. The abolition of minimum rates could also result in less freedom for travellers because Member States would press for tighter restrictions on the amount of alcohol that individuals could take from one Member State to another in order to stem the inevitable revenue leakage. I am definitely against re-establishing borders within the EU for alcoholic beverages and I am therefore also against abolishing minimum rates. It would also set a dangerous precedent for the other excises, such as tobacco and energy, which are also subject to minimum rates, and for other taxes such as VAT. Member States are required to respect certain rules in relation to tax rates. It could also raise health-related concerns.

I should also like to say something about the proposed Code of Conduct, which effectively introduces a positive rate of excise duty on wine. As you know, wine is currently subject to a minimum rate of zero, and this remains the case under the Commission proposal. However, under the proposed Code of Conduct, the 15 Member States that do not currently tax wine would not only need to introduce a positive rate, but would ultimately need to aim their trade towards the EU average, which is currently EUR 48 per hectolitre. I am convinced that the proposed increase in excise duty on wine would not be widely supported by citizens.

In conclusion, I sincerely hope that honourable Members will reject the proposal made in the report and deliver an opinion supporting the Commission proposals, as amended, of course, by the Council compromise regarding in particular the date from which to start counting inflation, 1 May 2004, which would result in an increase of just 4.5 % in the minimum excise duty.

 
  
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  Astrid Lulling (PPE-DE), rapporteur. – (FR) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, in politics, we sometimes need to show courage. Parliament could do that tomorrow by voting for my report, which proposes the abolition of minimum rates of excise duty on alcohol and alcoholic beverages. These rates were set in 1992 with a view to approximating the rates applied in the different States. This approximation has not happened, far from it.

The minimum rates are not to blame, however, even though they have not been brought into line with inflation for fifteen years. If they were increased by 31% – as the Commission proposed in September 2006 – there would still be no significant approximation. In fact, the difference between these minimum rates, even if they were adapted, and the rates on wine, beer and spirits in the Member States of the North of the Union, would still be huge. By way of evidence, the tax on a litre of beer in the Czech Republic or Malta is EUR 0.0936, whilst in Finland it stands at EUR 1.43!

Despite many months of discussion, the Council has not been able to reach an agreement on adapting these minimum rates, however minimal an adaptation it may be. It has only just decided to ask the Commission to carry out a detailed study on the taxing of alcohol and alcoholic beverages, in particular the trends relating to competitive positions and price levels.

Things being as they are, Commissioner, we must now escape from the impasse in which the Council and the Commission are tied up. There is only one sensible, logical and intelligent way to do this: to forget about minimum rates that no longer have any raison d'être and to reach an agreement on a code of practice that will help the Member States to bring their rates of excise duty closer together while respecting the principle of subsidiarity, which you have forgotten to mention. That is what the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs is proposing to you in my report.

With regard to the amendments tabled for plenary by the Socialist Group in the European Parliament and the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, I firmly propose that they be rejected. The Socialist amendments would lead to a botched job on the increase in rates and on the timetable. What is more serious, however, is the fact that they provide henceforth for automatic adaptations to the European price index in the event that it increases by 0.5%, with no consultation of Parliament or of the Council. When we think back to our battle in the field of comitology, such a proposal is a thing of folklore! To propose a zero rate, as the Socialists have done, for Bulgarian home distillers who consume their own products, was nothing but window dressing and an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the Bulgarian citizens before the European elections in Bulgaria on 20 May. This is blindingly obvious, since the authors of the amendment in question know perfectly well that such an exemption would be impracticable and would have no chance of being adopted unanimously in the Council. The same is true of the withdrawal of my report from the agenda of the mini-session of 9 May, in order to prevent the Bulgarian Socialists from showing their true colours before 20 May: it has not helped much, in view of the Socialists’ result in Bulgaria, which was not so marvellous, I am pleased to say.

With regard to the amendments of the Greens, I must first of all point out that they are unaware that it is fortunately not the Commission, but the Council, that has to decide on taxation. Such ignorance of the Treaty is all the more serious for a group that never stops preaching to everybody in this House! If, at the last minute, the Greens had not withdrawn their Amendments 24 and 26 – which call upon the Commission to set a maximum rate – we would have had to declare them inadmissible because they were incompatible with the Treaty.

To classify wine as a substitute for beer, as the Greens do in their Amendment 25, is complete fantasy and demonstrates an under-developed knowledge of gastronomy. The wine producers of France, Germany and Luxembourg will not forget, by 2009, that their Green MEPs proposed abolishing the zero tax on wine, which is an extremely important agricultural product. These countries, which have chosen to apply the zero tax, are certainly not prepared to vote for its abolition as from 2008.

Commissioner, you have defended your position, which has already died a death in the Council. I regret that you have not taken the opportunity that we are offering you on a platter to break the deadlock without losing face. It is a real shame! I am sure you understand Latin, Commissioner: errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum [to err is human, to persist is of the Devil].

 
  
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  Piia-Noora Kauppi, on behalf of the PPE-DE Group. Mr President, first and foremost, although I normally support wholeheartedly Commission initiatives on taxation, especially the common consolidated corporate tax base for companies, on this issue I also support Mrs Lulling and this excellent report.

Any report that deals with alcohol and taxation risks running into a lot of national sensitivities, and this has happened to this report.

In 1992 – the last time this matter was debated in Parliament – the European Union looked very different. There were only 12 Member States, with GDP per capita levels relatively close to one another. It was then presumed that imposing minimum rates of duty on alcohol would result in price convergence across the Member States. We now know that, even if this had happened with the 12 old Member States – which it did not – the changes in the structure of our Union alone would impose the need for change. These rates are no longer up to date or beneficial for the European economy as a whole.

I am glad that Mrs Lulling came to the radical conclusion of scrapping all the minimum rates on alcohol duties and proposes a code of conduct instead. This is beneficial in many ways: it eliminates the need for continuous inflation checks and gives Member States the right to choose the level of duties appropriate for their economic and cultural conditions, which now vary greatly across the 27 Member States.

I understand the concern as to what the next consequence in the Council might be. It is true that the Member States might try to impose some new barriers, but we are not in favour of that. We would like to leave Member States free to make their own stupid decisions, if that is what they want to do.

Therefore, I would like to stress that being in favour of Mrs Lulling’s report does not contradict some Member States continuing to impose higher taxes on alcohol. This is the case, for example, in the Nordic countries, like Finland, where higher taxes are still used to finance, among other things, a wide number of health initiatives and campaigns. I support that policy in the Nordic countries, because we are not ready for very low rates of alcohol taxes in Europe. Maybe we are a less gastronomic country in that way, but this does not contradict my view that the Lulling report should be adopted tomorrow.

 
  
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  Pervenche Berès, on behalf of the PSE Group. (FR) Mr President, I suspected that this debate on rates of excise duty would be passionate, and I believe that we have had a foretaste of it.

Our rapporteur, who did not receive the backing of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament during the vote in the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, has urged us to show courage and, to her, showing courage clearly means erasing the past today. I recognise her Luxemburgish talent in this regard, concerning rates of excise duty in the field of alcohol, but forgive me if I do not follow her along this path and do not agree to this plea in favour of fiscal competition or free movement of goods within an internal market that would not actually be one.

I believe your proposal to be a good one, Commissioner. I believe that the compromise elements that are currently on the table in the Council, which take account of the reality of the rise in rates of excise duty following the enlargement of the European Union, are good ones and that we should support them. The amendments tabled by my group are along those lines and are in no way a botched job, and Mrs Lulling has clearly not understood what they are essentially about.

The question is how to move forward in this field. The idea that it would be best to abandon everything on the grounds that it is a difficult task does not seem to me to be a good strategy. Furthermore, with regard to abandoning excise duties entirely, I am delighted to hear that Mrs Kaupi recognises that they can be useful, including in terms of public health, and that it is best to maintain them.

Going beyond the particular problem of our Bulgarian friends, I believe that, as legislators, we must be serious and consistent and advocate maintaining the weak and inadequate tools currently in the hands of the Commission so that the operation of the internal market involves certain fiscal aspects. Commissioner, as you know, you can count on the full support of my group in this battle.

 
  
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  Olle Schmidt, on behalf of the ALDE Group. (SV) Mrs Lulling, you have many good sides, but sometimes you also go wide of the mark, and that is what you are doing with this report. I shall recommend my group to reject your proposal as a whole and thus to follow the Commission.

In a report on price levels of alcohol, account must also be taken of the significance that increased drinking would have for public health. However, public health is a subject about which nothing is said. To abolish excise duty on alcohol, including beer, would be to give out entirely the wrong signals. We know that the harm caused by alcohol is on the increase, and we know that ever more young people in Europe are literally drinking themselves to death, and not only in the Nordic countries.

Every day, beer, wine and spirits – including half a million cans of beer and 65 000 bottles of spirits - flood into Sweden. This is due to the big differences in alcohol taxation. Higher common excise duties within the EU can play an important role in this area. The cost margin means a lot in this context, because the consumers we are talking about are price-conscious.

European integration must not take place on the basis of alcohol tourism. I am not asking for the EU to introduce Swedish-style taxes – that would be an alien idea to me – but what I do request is consideration for, and solidarity with, other countries and their inhabitants. That is why excise duties on alcohol need increasingly to be harmonised.

We Europeans drink more alcohol than anyone else in the world. Last year, the Commission presented a strategy for reducing the harm caused through alcohol. If we in this House want to adopt the Commission’s approach, we have only one thing to do, and that is to reject this report.

 
  
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  Zdzisław Zbigniew Podkański, on behalf of the UEN Group. – (PL) Mr President, Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen, the proposal to approximate the rates of excise duty for alcohol and alcoholic beverages has triggered lively debate and much controversy. This has been partly due to the variety of excise duty rates applied in individual Member States of the Union and partly to fears that those behind the changes are aiming for the Union to gradually take over responsibility for taxes from the Member States. It is alleged that their ultimate aim is a single tax on natural and legal persons.

Inclusion of the proposed amendments to Council Directive 92/84/EEC would therefore weaken competition and lead to a reduction in the quality of individual products as well as to increased monopoly of the market by large concerns.

In conclusion, this is a more complex problem than it appears to those proposing the amendments. It calls for deeper analysis, discussion and further consultation with the Member States.

 
  
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  Carl Schlyter, on behalf of the Verts/ALE Group. (SV) Anyone who, in the name of subsidiarity, wishes to abolish the minimum tax on alcohol must agree, also in the name of subsidiarity, to allow a limit to be placed on private imports of alcohol. Otherwise, countries with high excise duties will be completely overflowing with cheap, privately imported spirits and have to pay for this in terms of high health care costs. Without import restrictions, it will be the country with the lowest taxes that will force its alcohol policy on all the others.

What is the logic according to which it is possible to take 200 kg of wine, beer and spirits across the EU countries’ borders, but only 15 kg of fresh fish? Moreover, it is absurd to have zero tax on wine when there is tax on beer and spirits. It is even more absurd when Sweden is taken to court for having, as the Commission sees it, favoured the beer sector through its high taxes on wine. The EU is itself distorting the market through its zero tax on wine. Alcohol is not a normal product. To do as the committee does and see this as an internal market issue without taking account of public health is irresponsible and economically unsound.

 
  
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  Gerard Batten, on behalf of the IND/DEM Group. Mr President, the Council and the Commission want to increase the minimum rate of excise duty on alcohol, supposedly to reduce the distortions in competition and to promote the single market. The rapporteur states that the minimum rate set in 1992 and applied by a minority of Member States has not prevented other Member States from widening the gap by increasing their rates. The conclusion is that it is pointless to set minimum rates when Member States are free to set higher rates and the directive should be abolished.

However, the EU is never going to relinquish control over anything, however pointless it may be, and certain countries will see their rates rise when the minimum rate is increased in line with inflation. This at least will teach new Member States a valuable lesson: the EU will interfere in that which is closest to their hearts and it will cost them money.

 
  
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  Jean-Claude Martinez, on behalf of the ITS Group. (FR) Mr President, we were told in 1990 that rate brackets were needed. In 1992, we were told that minimum rates were needed. Now we are being told that floating minimum rates are needed, and always for the same reason: the eugenics, the health neurosis of the Protestant Europe, which should lead us to impose internal customs duties, to erect fiscal barriers, of up to nearly two euros per litre of wine, in Denmark or in the United Kingdom for example. But if our British, Danish or Swedish friends wish to impose taxes, let them do so! The Mediterranean countries, Germany and Luxembourg impose zero excise duties on wine.

Everybody is free, if they so wish, to take drugs rather than to drink, but we do not try to solve the drug problem through taxation. And we do not create health safety, if I dare say so, by means of taxation. Let them drink, let them live! There are endless maximum limits: we do not need minimum limits!

 
  
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  Roger Helmer (NI). Mr President, here we go again – yet another timid, surreptitious attempt by the Commission to introduce tax harmonisation by the back door.

In this House, we love to talk about ‘harmful tax competition’, so let us get one thing straight right away: there is no such thing as harmful tax competition; all tax competition is good. Any attempt at harmonisation represents a cartel operated by governments against the interests of the people. Like all attempts to harmonise taxes, this proposal will have the effect of raising taxes yet further in our grossly overtaxed economies.

The Commission’s proposal has a further defect: by seeking to apply a common percentage increase across the board, it further exacerbates the existing distortion between beverage types, which unfairly discriminates in favour of wine at the expense of traditional spirits, like cognac and Scotch. Here I must declare an interest: I once worked in the Scotch whisky business; for several years I was Mr Johnny Walker in Korea.

Any reasonable person must surely agree that the gross discrimination in duty terms in favour of wine, and against beer and spirits, which these proposals enshrine, is wholly unacceptable. It cannot be allowed to proceed. Let me therefore commend the work of the rapporteur, the admirable Mrs Lulling. Rarely has a report in this House distilled so much common sense.

The 1992 measure to harmonise alcohol duties has failed in its objectives. The changes proposed by the Commission would also fail. The amount of duty collected is small, sometimes too low to justify the collection costs. Member States should be free to set rates that suit their own people and their culture.

Mrs Lulling’s final recommendation is that the Community legislation in this matter should be abolished. Let me congratulate the rapporteur, Mrs Lulling, on a job well done.

 
  
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  Мартин Димитров (PPE-DE). – Уважаеми г-н председател, уважаеми дами и господа, в аргументите, използвани от социалистите и от уважаемия комисар Kovács, има един голям проблем и той е следният: Те казват: „Когато акцизите се определят от Брюксел централизирано, няма проблеми със здравето. Обаче, когато се даде правото на всяка страна сама да определя своето акцизно облагане, тогава има големи здравни проблеми.“

Това е несъстоятелен аргумент, който е типичен за хората, които имат централизиран начин на мислене. Страните имат повече информация, по-добре познават своите проблеми и могат по-добре да се справят с определянето на акцизните ставки. Защо мислите, че когато Брюксел определя централизирани акцизи, нещата изглеждат по-добре? Тази логика не я разбирам.

Другото много важно нещо: здравните проблеми зависят от образованието, от информационни кампании и много по-малко от данъци. Разликата в доходите между Източна и Западна Европа е много голяма. Как при 10 пъти разлика в доходите да определите минимални акцизи, така че всички да са доволни? Това очевидно не може да стане. В страни като България и Румъния сегашното акцизно облагане представлява около 70 % от крайната цена заедно с ДДС, което създава огромен стимул за „сива икономика“, което означава производство, което не се отчита въобще от държавата. Тази „сива икономика“ ще навлиза и в други страни-членки на Европейския съюз.

Затова въобще не може да се говори и не трябва да се говори за увеличаване на акцизните ставки. Напротив, трябва да се даде право на всяка страна в зависимост от своите традиции, национални особености да определя акцизните ставки. Това е разумното, рационално предложение.

Напълно заставаме цялата българска делегация в Народната партия зад предложението на г-жа Lulling, което е изключително разумно. Това е едно законодателство, което 15 години не дава ефект. Очевидно е, че е излишно и ако имаме доблестта и смелостта, трябва да кажем: „Да, не върши работа.“ И трябва да бъде спряно. Неслучайно започна инициатива на Европейската комисия за премахване на тези директиви, които са излишни. Ето пример за излишна директива. Имате ли смелостта да я прекратите? Това е единственото решение.

 
  
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  Ieke van den Burg (PSE). – (NL) Mr President, forgive me if I – contrary to what appears to be the norm here – do not gush with emotion about this subject. First of all, I should like to apologise for the absence of our shadow rapporteur, Mrs Gottardi, from whom I will be taking over for now.

I have to say that I noted with great amusement how Mrs Lulling, like a latter-day Marianne, has led this battle, this insurgence against this proposal for a directive and this proposal to increase the minimum rates on beer and alcohol according to inflation. This is, indeed, as is evident, a subject which can boost one's popularity no end. Taxes are, of course, an unpopular topic, while beer and alcohol are very popular. Anyway, we, in our group, did not get carried away to that extent, because we, like Mrs Berès, feel responsible for the internal market and for fair competition.

The only negative comment I should like to make is that this directive, as it was drafted in the early 90s, is, of course, very poor legislation because it contains absolute figures. This is not a very good way of going about things, certainly if the topic requires unanimity of votes, because then it is virtually impossible to change those absolute figures at a later date.

This is why I am so impressed with the proposal, which Commissioner Kovács presented together with the Finnish Presidency, that automatic indexation be provided for. I think it was a very positive gesture not to start as high as in the original proposal, but to make a more modest start with a view to increasing at a later date.

This is why the Socialist Group in the European Parliament has tabled these proposals, which are currently being discussed in the Council, as amendments. I think it would be very wise and would bear witness to sound policy if a majority in Parliament were to vote in favour of them tomorrow.

 
  
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  Margarita Starkevičiūtė (ALDE). – (LT) Mr President, I would like to support Astrid Lulling's report, because I believe that it is well balanced and relates to a liberal taxation policy.

The argument here today is not about the excise itself, the raising of which in steps of 1% will not, as the Commission likes to say, change anything, and the difference in customs duties between, for example, Lithuania and the Scandinavian countries will stay just as great. The argument is about whether we want to standardise and harmonise tax tariffs, or whether we consider that the diversity of our countries should be reflected in different tax tariffs and different taxation systems. Yes, we have to encourage business to function among the various countries, and a common domestic market has to be created. However, we can achieve that, and we have plans (Parliament has already accepted such a report) for harmonising the taxation base. Customs tariffs have to reflect the real situation in each country, and they have to create possibilities for business to show its initiatives. In those countries, where such initiatives are not supported by appropriate infrastructure, such as in the new Member States, such initiatives can be supported by separate tax tariffs. Competition is always a healthy thing, whatever point of view one represents. Our internal EU squabbles about which country is the cheapest appear quite amusing. Because the really cheap alcohol is in Russia.

 
  
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  Hélène Goudin (IND/DEM). – (SV) Extensive alcohol consumption has serious social consequences, or what are known as negative external effects. In order more easily to understand the problem, a parallel may be drawn with the taxes imposed on vehicle fuel. Such fuel is taxed because it has harmful effects on the environment. By levying a tax, it is possible to combat the environmental damage caused by combustion. The cost is thus internalised, and the polluter pays.

The same principle can be applied to the sale of alcohol. Countries’ health systems are put under strain as a result of alcohol-related diseases. In this case, tax on alcohol has two effects. Firstly, less of a product is consumed if it is taxed and, secondly, tax revenue contributes to the exchequer. This money can then be used for caring for people with alcohol-related diseases.

Where minimum taxes are concerned, we believe that, when they exist, it is better to keep them than to remove them. Nor should an exception be made, as happens at present, for certain alcoholic drinks.

 
  
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  Petre Popeangă (ITS). – Din lipsă de timp, o să mă limitez la a expune doar câteva consideraţii privind efectele pe care le-ar produce în România modificarea directivei pe care o analizăm, consideraţii transmise de către o asociaţie de producători de bere pe care le împărtăşesc şi le susţin. Se apreciază că aplicarea unei asemenea măsuri este, în prezent, dăunătoare industriei berii din România, deoarece va declanşa o competiţie neloială între unităţile producătoare de bere şi cele producătoare de alte băuturi fermentate, determinată de faptul că prin egalizarea propusă se va provoca creşterea accizei la bere, în timp ce la alte băuturi fermentate va rămâne neschimbată. Consecinţa directă şi imediată a acestei modificări este scumpirea produsului, în condiţiile în care în România coeficientul putere de cumpărare pe produs intern brut/locuitor indică faptul că berea este deja cu 200% mai scumpă decât media preţurilor practicate la produsele similare din Europa 15. Creşterea preţului va determina în mod automat şi limitarea producţiei, ca una dintre consecinţele diminuării consumului, ceea ce va provoca şi scăderea numărului de salariaţi din acest sector, cu tot cortegiul de efecte sociale şi financiare ce ar rezulta din acest proces.

În sfârşit, dar fără a epuiza toate consecinţele pe care le-ar genera adoptarea unei astfel de decizii, se semnalează şi faptul că mărirea accizei la bere ar putea avea şi efecte inverse celor scontate, determinând per total o diminuarea a veniturilor bugetare ca urmare a scăderii vânzărilor şi diminuării personalului din acest sector.

 
  
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  Zsolt László Becsey (PPE-DE). (HU) I congratulate Mrs Lulling for writing the report, and I hope that tomorrow Parliament will also give her maximum support. We need a shift in philosophy as regards excise duties, for determining the minimum rates in euro does nothing to improve the status of convergence – we can see this. In other words, it simply does not achieve the objective.

Essentially, in a system that is open from the top, measured in euro, there will certainly not be significant convergence. In addition, we may even cause serious harm in this way, since in many Member States, generally the poorer ones, imposing price controls of which even Marx would be proud would mean placing new mandatory inflationary burdens on those Member States in which public finances are in order, thereby further limiting freedom in tax policy. Yet many of them have just raised, or are raising excise duties by force, and what is more, these penalised countries would even surpass the maximum level of revenues – as the economic analyses indicate.

This could be used to give new ammunition for the argument against introducing the euro in these countries – for instance in the Baltic and the Balkan states – with specious reasoning on the grounds of inflation, in order to keep them out of the euro zone. But how could we think that in Bulgaria or Romania, with their salaries of 100-150 euro, this will not generate a black economy, crime and illegal brewing? This is public health! Or will they spend half their monthly salary on excise duties?

Not to mention that the ingenious idea has been raised to subject wine, as a replacement product for beer, to the minimum rate as well, thus burdening even further this ancient European culture. If we want true convergence, and in this we agree as regards strategy, then we need to introduce a code of conduct – this is what I recommended, and the Commission has accepted it – in which Member States who are above or below the average excise rate will agree to make changes in the excise duty only in order to converge towards the average, should economic conditions permit it.

There is no question of restoring the borders, nor of abolishing the excise tax, this may be the only solution with regard to the excise tax policy. It is enlarged, and Member States of extremely diverse stages of development [the speech is broken off here].

 
  
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  Antolín Sánchez Presedo (PSE). – (ES) Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, the approximation of the rates of excise duty on alcohol and alcoholic beverages, establishing minimum levels for rates of excise, is a valid method for reducing distortions in competition and imbalances in the functioning of the single market and at the same time leaving room for the Member States to exercise their fiscal competences.

The review of rates, which have been invariable since 1992, is necessary in order to prevent the system from becoming out of date and losing its raison d'être. It is always a complex operation, since, though the initial approximation effort has been devalued over time, it has also been extended with the incorporation since then, in three successive waves, of fifteen Member States with very different cultures and situations.

Abandoning the Community acquis, as proposed by the rapporteur, is a step backwards that could have a destabilising effect with undesirable consequences. Maintaining it will not prevent the Member States from exploring and anticipating new advances by means of soft formulae such as codes of conduct.

According to the calculations, the Commission’s proposal of recovering, from 1 January 2008, 31% of the inflation increase that happened between 1983 and 2005 will not affect the majority of States, which have higher minimum rates, although it may lead to a sharp increase in others and have a negative impact on producers, employment and price control.

For all of these reasons I believe that, in the review, wine should remain exempt, that the rates proposed should be reduced, taking account of the particular sensitivity of beer and intermediate products, and that the new Member States should be allowed to adapt gradually, since they are starting from very different positions.

I believe that periodic reviews should be carried out in the future, although automatic indexing could disconnect this fiscal instrument from the European Union's economic policy.

 
  
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  Ivo Strejček (PPE-DE).(CS) Mr President, Commissioner, good evening. Mrs Lulling, you have been attracting praise from some quarters this evening. Aside from the fact that I commend you on your report, I would also like to say to you that it has given me great pleasure. This is because it reflects at least four points that I should like to emphasise here.

Firstly, your report is based on the idea that cross-border trade, with the free movement of goods, is one of the fundamental principles of European integration. Consumers make their decisions on the basis of price, that is to say, on the relative tax burden on the goods. If some Member States overload their goods with high taxes, they must react via their domestic tax policy, rather than wait for salvation from the EU.

Secondly, I feel that one of the key points in your report is that tax competition is good and healthy. The creation of what is known as the single market of tax-free borders is simply a modern form of protectionism.

Thirdly, as has been mentioned several times, each Member State has the right to pursue its own independent tax policy. Taxation and managing the proceeds of tax lies at the heart of political competition. As you know, Mrs Lulling, in this Chamber I represent the Czech Republic and its interests, and because my country is a well-known producer and exporter of beer, I should like to make one final comment. There is not one single reason why Czech brewers and Czech consumers should be penalised by the harmonisation of consumer taxes.

 
  
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  Jan Andersson (PSE). – (SV) I really do think that the Commission’s original proposal with an adjustment from 1993 was the best, but I appreciate that, in order to reach a compromise in the Council, an adjustment from 2004 is the only option. Why am I in favour of the Commission’s proposal? Well, it is because of the arguments presented earlier. I want to see taxes, that is to say minimum taxes, on environmentally harmful activities because I want to reduce such activities.

I take the same view on alcohol. Alcohol costs us a huge amount in public health terms. One effective way of dealing with this would, then, be to impose minimum taxes in order to reduce consumption. A strange argument has been presented in this debate. It is said that the moderate increase in taxes contemplated would affect inflation. For that to be the case in any single country, alcohol consumption and thus alcohol problems would have to be so incredibly extensive that it really would be high time that taxes were increased.

 
  
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  László Kovács, Member of the Commission. Mr President, I would like to thank all the speakers who contributed to the debate. As I said in my opening remarks, repealing the directive and abolishing minimum rates would have extreme consequences, and I should like to say a little more about this.

Without minimum rates, there would be no obligation whatsoever on Member States to apply excise duties at all on alcohol, and, indeed, given the low importance that some Member States attach to alcohol excise duties in terms of low duty levels, this must be seen as a real possibility.

I have no doubt that, in the absence of minimum rates, some Member States would press for tighter restrictions on the amount of alcohol that individuals can take from one Member State to another, in order to stem the inevitable revenue leakage, and this would result in less freedom for citizens. There is also some suggestion that minimum rates interfere with Member States’ sovereignty. In fact it is quite the opposite. They support Member States’ sovereignty by allowing Member States to pursue their own fiscal policies, without the threat of those policies being undermined by other Member States and, in particular, by cross-border shopping and smuggling.

That does not mean that minimum rates are designed to protect higher-taxing Member States. The fact that the minimum rates are set at a fairly low level and remain low even after the 4.5% revalorisation leaves Member States with plenty of room for manoeuvre. Those who wish to set their national rates at levels close to the minimum are not precluded from doing so. Equally, those who wish to set their rates far above the minimum are free to do so, but they must take the responsibility for the consequences.

I want to confirm once again that the purpose of the proposal is certainly not harmonisation – not even approximation. The purpose of the proposal is revalorisation. As regards the possibility that the increase of minimum excise duty rates generated inflation, it certainly did not do that: it is a compensation for the inflation that has already taken place.

To the argument that it can increase the black economy, I say that the lack or abolition of excise duty can generate smuggling and cross-border shopping which has nothing to do with fair competition at all.

Finally, as far as the Czech breweries and consumers are concerned, they will not suffer because, in the Czech Republic, the current excise duty rate is much higher than the new common minimum rate will be after the increase.

 
  
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  Astrid Lulling (PPE-DE), rapporteur. (FR) I should like to speak in my capacity as rapporteur, as happens in the majority of the national parliaments. I have sat in one for 25 years and Members are able to respond there as rapporteurs. Commissioner, I would like to say …

 
  
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  President. Excuse me, Mrs Lulling. I shall give you one minute just to conclude and say whatever you think is most important, because you are not scheduled to speak. You have one minute.

 
  
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  Astrid Lulling (PPE-DE). – But you gave so many minutes to the Commissioner, and you do not allow me to answer. This is not a debate! We are in a Parliament here!

 
  
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  President. Yes, we are in a Parliament, and that is why I am obliged to keep some order.

 
  
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  Astrid Lulling (PPE-DE). – (FR) We are in a parliament, Mr President, and I have the right to respond to the Commissioner and to the speakers. I would like to respond to Mrs Berès, who has accused me of seeking to erase the past by abolishing duties.

My proposal has been seriously misunderstood, Mr President. I would like to correct these misunderstandings, because it has been said that excise duties were being abolished. No! Abolishing minimum rates does not mean eliminating excise duties: each Member State is free to set them, and each Member State is also free to adjust them. We must not, however, say things here that are totally wide of the mark. If we are to mix up alcoholism, the fight against alcoholism, with rates of excise duty, I would like to point out to you that alcoholism is worst in the Member States with the highest excise duties.

Mr President, I very much regret that you have not given me time to respond, particularly to the Commissioner, since the Commissioner has tried to give the impression that our amendment on a code of conduct would lead to excise duties on wine of 48 euros/hl …

(The President cut off the speaker)

 
  
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  President. The debate is closed.

The vote will take place on Wednesday 23 May.

 
Last updated: 1 August 2007Legal notice