The Court of Justice has now delivered its judgment in Case C-333/14 in relation to the lawfulness of the Scottish measure to introduce minimum alcohol pricing, or MUP for short. Both the Scottish Government and the Scotch Whisky Association, which brought the legal challenge, have “welcomed the ruling” although I think that the SWA are probably a little happier than the Scottish Government as the case returns to the Inner House of the Court of Session, which had referred it to the CJEU. I’ve previously written about the AG’s Opinion and the Court has adopted a very similar approach, but in many ways the judgment leaves as many questions as it answers. It does appear to give quite a strong steer to the Court of Session that the CJEU would prefer the adoption of the “less restrictive” increase in general excise duties instead of the MUP, but it leaves the final decision on the proportionality of MUP to the Scottish court.
Is MUP caught by Art 34 TFEU?
Both parties to the dispute had accepted that MUP pricing was caught by Art 34 TFEU (the ban on measures with an equivalent effect to quantitative restrictions on imports), but there was little clarity as to how such a measure breached the prohibition. That at least has been clarified today. The Court followed the AG’s elegant solution of evading the complications of categorising a MUP as a “selling arrangement” and dealing with the matter under the Gourmet International style analysis, but rather preferring to use the Trailers “market access” test. A minimum pricing measure restricts access to the UK market as it prevents lower cost products from other Member States from exploiting that cost advantage in lower retail prices . As the removal of the benefits of the cost advantage triggers the market access test there is no need to discuss whether there is any discrimination inherent within the scheme. This is another example of the Court preferring the flexibility of the new test to the more traditional Cassis and Keck line of decisions.
The Tricky Balancing Act in Proportionality
The majority of the ruling deals with the much more difficult question of the potential justification of the measure on health grounds and whether the restriction is proportionate. At first instance the Outer House of the Court of Session accepted that the measure was proportionate as it targeted ‘harmful and hazardous’ drinkers who tended to consume low price high alcohol products which were most effected by MUP, but in the CJEU ruling there is a different view taken as to the purpose of the measure. On the evidence presented to it the CJEU takes the view that MUP has a “twofold objective” , both targeting these “harmful and hazardous” drinkers, while also reducing general alcohol consumption in the wider population “albeit only secondarily”. It is this “ambiguity”, as the AG put it, which I think is at the heart of the problem in the Ruling. If one cannot clearly define what a measure is designed to achieve it is incredibly hard to come to a firm conclusion as to whether it is proportionate. The Court did accept, at , that the measure was a real attempt by the Scottish Government to address health problems within Scotland, but set out that it cannot go beyond what is necessary in order to protect health. The choice before the CJEU was between the Scottish Government’s preference for MUP, and the argument that the same health benefit could be obtained through an increase in the general excise duties applied to all alcohol products, as preferred by the SWA and the European Commission. The Court argued that increased taxation could be an effective heath protection measure, as it is in relation to tobacco, and that an increase in taxation:
“is liable to be less restrictive of trade in those products within the European Union than a measure imposing an MPU. The reason is … that the latter measure, unlike increased taxation of those products, significantly restricts the freedom of economic operators to determine their retail selling prices and, consequently, constitutes a serious obstacle to access to the United Kingdom market of alcoholic drinks lawfully marketed in Member States other than the United Kingdom and to the operation of fair competition in that market.”
The contention that an increase in taxation would be less restrictive of trade, in comparison to MUP, is one of which I have never been convinced. Taxation affects all products, and MUP would only affect a limited number; on that simple basis I contend that MUP is arguably less restrictive in terms of the volume of trade impacted by the measure. Volume of trade affected has been seen as important in other Art 34 cases, see for example the Sunday Trading litigation of the 80s, but here the Court refers to this issue much more explicitly than before. It is not concerned with reducing the volume of trade impacted, but is much more concerned that the measure does not impact “fair competition” within the market; even if a greater number of products are affected. The Court refers to an argument made by the Lord Advocate questioning the relevance of the Court’s previous cases that dealing with minimum pricing in tobacco markets. The Court rejects that position, at , but I am nervous about simply reading across from those cases. Those cases centred on the Tobacco Harmonisation Directives, which were explicitly designed to enhance the single market integration by using price competition as a driver of integration. The direct protection of retail price competition is not usually seen so explicitly under Art 34 TFEU. It appears that the Court is now reading the protection of price competition into the prohibition. There is also, to my mind, another important distinction between the health problems associated with tobacco consumption and the health problems associated with alcohol - different problems will require different solutions.
The final issue in the proportionality discussion relates to the vexed question of choosing the least restrictive of the two measures, and the intrinsically connected question of the balance between restrictiveness of a measure and its effectiveness at achieving its aim. Here we return to the “ambiguity” of the purpose of MUP. The Courts states, at :
“the fact that increased taxation of alcoholic drinks entails a generalised increase in the prices of those drinks, affecting both drinkers whose consumption of alcohol is moderate and those whose consumption is hazardous or harmful, does not appear, in the light of the twofold objective pursued by the national legislation at issue in the main proceedings … to lead to the conclusion that such increased taxation is less effective than the measure chosen”.
The Court appears to suggest that as taxation can achieve both the general and the specific aim it is as effective. I find that difficult to follow. One of the main reasons that MUP was adopted was it was targeted, in that it only impacted on cheap and strong products and would not have a wider impact on moderate drinkers or on-sales, which would generally be above the MUP floor. The Court is expressing a preference for the secondary aim of the measure and effectively side-lining its primary purpose. It describes this generalised impact as “additional benefits” , but I would argue this is not additional in any valuable sense if it removes the primary benefit, targeting, from the measure. The Court goes on to the usual statement that the final decision is, of course, for the referring court, once it has heard all the evidence and argument, but it is pretty clear where its preference lies. This preference for one aim over another does not sit well with the settled position, repeated at , that the Member State can decide on the degree of protection it requires.
On the Article 36 TFEU Derogation
The previous discussion was in relation to the ‘rule of reason’ within the Art 34 TFEU prohibition, but as health protection is one of the grounds for derogation in Art 36 TFEU it is also possible to justify MUP on that basis. The Court discusses Art 36 separately and while the questions are similar the Court appears to adopt a slightly more relaxed tone. It stresses the same proportionality test as above, and that it is the Member State’s responsibility to prevent the appropriate evidence, but also that:
“that burden of proof cannot extend to creating the requirement that, where the competent national authorities adopt national legislation imposing a measure such as the MPU, they must prove, positively, that no other conceivable measure could enable the legitimate objective pursued to be attained under the same conditions”.
This appears to give some succour to the Scottish Government that the ball is now in their court, and that they must present the best evidence they can to convince the Court of Session. The alcohol policy evidence, including the Nuffield Report published yesterday, tends to suggest that there is a good case to be made for MUP. In that sense there is a still a lot for both sides to play for when the Court of Session comes back to this issue in 2016.
It is unfortunate that the Court has followed the reasoning of the AG and the weaknesses that it exhibited. We now have confirmation that price competition receives protection under Article 34 TFEU, and any attempt by Member States to interfere with the free setting of prices is likely to be scrutinised as a matter of EU law. The most disappointing aspect of the ruling is the lack of clarity in the Court’s discussion of proportionality, it has been described as “Delphic” by some commentators. I have explained some of my concerns, but the most troubling aspect is the Court’s apparent willingness to suggest that the Scottish Parliament picked the “wrong” health aim, and use proportionality analysis to “correct” that mistake. The Inner House of the Court of Session still has a lot of work to do in unpicking the Court’s Ruling.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 12