It is surely no surprise to anyone that the European Commission has entered the debate on the SNP government’s policy of introducing a minimum price for alcohol. So this is a fight that the Scottish government would have been expecting – but is it one that Alex Salmond actually wants?
The European Commission has argued that minimum pricing would be in breach of trade laws that promote competition in the EU. Bulgaria, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain – all producers of alcoholic drinks – have all lodged objections too. And the Scotch Whisky Association is pursuing an action through the Court of Session questioning the legality of the policy.
Minimum pricing would increase the price of cheaper bottles of spirits to around £14. A quick look at the Asda website showed they are selling own brand vodka at £10.27 a bottle and whisky at £11.96.The logic is that higher prices would decrease the amount that people could afford to drink.
Health experts predict that this could save 50 or 60 lives every year. I have my doubts as to the impact on hardened drinkers. Addicts will always find the money they need – after all heroin isn’t exactly cheap and many beg, steal or borrow to get the funds they need. But higher prices might reduce the amount that some people drink, and that can’t be a bad thing.
The new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Alex Neil, is not for backing down. “The European Commission is in favour of addressing alcohol abuse and have asked us to consider their points, which we will. We are confident that we can demonstrate that minimum price is justified on the basis of public health and social grounds and I will continue to press the case for minimum pricing in the strongest possible terms,” he said.
So it seems that there will be a fight. But does it suit Alex Salmond and his government to be seen as standing up against big bad Europe to defend what is a generally popular policy? With one eye on the referendum that is to come – and we all know that is Salmond’s absolute priority – I think that it does.
There are those within Salmond’s own party who disagree with the notion of independence in Europe, arguing that a truly independent country cannot exist within the EU. So putting some distance between the Scottish Government and Europe is no bad thing for Salmond right now.
And any situation where Salmond can be seen as standing up for Scotland on an international stage is a gift. The First Minister loves to be seen as an important figure beyond the confines of Scotland and will take any opportunity to play on the world stage. Especially when he can play the underdog, standing up for what he will argue is Scotland’s right to set its own policy.
So a challenge from the EU is no bad thing from an SNP perspective. If they were to win it would be seen as an endorsement of their approach and a victory worthy of celebration. A defeat would not be a disaster as it would be used as fuel for the independence argument – Salmond would find a way to blame the UK as the member state of the European Union, I’m sure.
One last thought. Did this expected EU challenge play a part in the decision to move Nicola Sturgeon from the health brief? It leaves Alex Neil to deal with alcohol pricing while Sturgeon is free to concentrate on arguing for independence.