The Swedish government has proposed a new law that could pass as soon as the first of January 2018. The law would effectively make it illegal for e-commerce shops to sell wine or other alcoholic beverages to Swedish consumers.
Sweden plan to achieve this by putting the responsibility of actually moving the goods on the buyer, who subsequently also have to pay the alcohol tax on the imported products.
It will in practical terms make it illegal, if the law passes, for Swedish citizens to buy alcohol online from another EU country. Unless they themselves arrange the transportation with a third party and also pay the alcohol tax, a tax that today is payed to the Swedish government by the seller.
"A Ban on Online Sales"
The Department of Social Affairs admits the purpose of the law is to effectively make e-commerce with alcohol illegal.
- It introduces, in other words a ban on the online sale of alcoholic beverages. The carrier shall, in relation to the person who has sold alcoholic beverages be independent and not on behalf of the seller carry drinks to anyone who has acquired them, writes the Swedish Ministry of Social Affairs in its legal memorandum.
Sweden has a state monopoly on alcohol retail sales through the company Systembolaget AB. Systembolaget has more than 400 stores across the country and is the only physical store allowed to sell beverages with an alcohol percentage of 3.5 percent or higher.
Private import of alcohol is however legal after the EU court ruled in favour of the Swedish doctor Klas Rosengren who had bought wine from Spain through mail order in 2001. In June 2007 the EU court made it clear that Klas Rosengren, and all Swedes, had the right to buy alcohol from another EU country:
"The ban on private imports of alcohol into Sweden constitute an unjustified quantitative restriction on the free movement of goods. The measure is not appropriate for attaining the objective of limiting alcohol consumption generally and is not proportionate to the objective of protecting young persons against the harmful effects of alcohol."
Monopolies are not unusual in the Nordic countries and Finland and Norway also have state monopolies regarding alcohol retail sales. Denmark is however like many other EU countries and allows sales of alcohol in any retail store. The argument for the monopolies is that it improves the health of the population and works to curb excessive drinking.
A Monopoly Is Good for Public Health
The health benefit of the monopoly (Systembolaget) is one of the arguments used in favour of passing this new law that is outlined in the legal memorandum. The law proposal has also been sent to several institutions in Sweden. Out of the 75 respondents consisting of municipalities, courts, public authorities and private companies around 30 find the proposal positive and 20 see problems with it. The rest have not taken a clear stance for or against the proposed law.
One of the institutions against the proposal is, ironically, The Swedish Public Health Agency. They do not see that an effective ban of the online sales of alcohol would be beneficial to public health in Sweden. The law proposal itself also states that one effect of the law would be that the online sales move to Systembolaget instead.
The Law Would Most Likely Be Overturned
The Swedish Public Health Agency and other respondents also see problems making this into law as it would most likely go against the EU regulations. The EU court is of course strict on the free movement of goods as it is one of the cornerstones of the union.
The chairman of the Swedish trade organisation of online wine sellers, Ole Nielsen, is highly sceptical of the proposal and says there is no legal basis for the law in the EU. The trade organisation has never received such great odds from several law firms, states Nielsen, as they approached them for a possible appeal of the Swedish law in the EU court.
- I was very surprised. These type of proposals have been coming up for nine years and every time they have been thrown out, as it is clear that the EU does not allow this type of trade barriers, Ole Nielsen said to Ecomony.
Even though the EU most likely would rule against the Swedish law, and EU law is above individual union countries, the effect would still be devastating for some wine sellers as they would go out of business long before the law is potentially overturned.