The European Commission has decided to refer Sweden to the European Court of Justice over its tax discrimination against wine in comparison to beer. The Commission considers that the Swedish tax system affords undue protection to beer, mainly produced domestically, in comparison to wine, which comes from other Member States. In the Commission's view, this discriminatory tax regime violates EC Treaty rules (Article 90) that forbid Member States to impose higher taxes on products from other Member States than on competing domestic products. The Court of Justice has ruled in several cases that beer and table wine are competing products.
Taxation Commissioner Frits Bolkestein commented: "The Commission must act against all forms of protectionism in the single market. Although I fully support Member States' attempts to address public health concerns linked to alcohol, there is simply no valid reason to apply much heavier taxation to a foreign product such as wine than to the competing national product, which is beer."
Both wine and beer are taxed in Sweden according to their final alcohol content by volume. Beer above 2.8% is taxed at 147 Swedish Kronor (SEK) per hectolitre per degree of alcohol. There is no tax on beer at or below 2.8%. There is also no tax on wine below 2.25%, but thereafter a series of tax bands apply for wine taxation purposes. Wine between 8.5% and 15% is taxed at 2208 SEK per hl.
Consequently, a litre of beer of 10 % will bear 14.7 SEK in excise duties, whereas a litre of wine of exactly the same strength will be taxed at 22.08 SEK. Thus wine is taxed more heavily than beer, not only because its base price and alcohol content is higher than that of beer, but also because the proportion of excise duty in the price is higher.
The overwhelming majority of beer consumed in Sweden is made locally while wine originates in other countries. The EU' Court of Justice has consistently held that there is a competitive relationship between beer and table wines. The Court's case law also confirms that the discrimination prohibited under the second paragraph of Article 90 of the EC Treaty includes discrimination that has the effect of reducing "potential" consumption of imported products.
In Sweden, table wines bear more tax per unit of alcohol than beer. The result is that the tax system is effectively crystallising consumer tastes by consolidating the advantage given to beer and discriminating against wine from other Member States.
However, the Commission underlines that it is not requiring that Sweden tax wine and beer at any particular rate (as long as its excise rates stay above certain minimum rates laid down in the EC excise directives). What is required, in order to eliminate the discrimination, is that the competing products be taxed evenly, whatever the tax rate.
The Commission's move follows on two formal requests to Sweden to change its law in the form of reasoned opinions (see IP/01/819 and IP/04/921). Following the first request, Sweden reduced the gap in the tax rates between wine and beer. However, having analysed the situation, the Commission considered that the tax scheme still put imported wine at a disadvantage and issued a second reasoned opinion. Sweden has since declared that it will not abide by the Commission's opinion.