Finland to start EU presidency with alcohol tax hikes

05.07.06 @ 09:59

  1. By Lucia Kubosova

STRASBOURG - One of the first concrete proposals the Finnish EU presidency will push in the bloc's agenda is an alcohol tax hike across Europe.

Helsinki has put the issue on the agenda of the very first meeting during its six-month period at the EU's helm - the gathering of finance ministers planned for 11 July.

"It is necessary to harmonize the tax rates to even out the price levels of alcohol," the presidency stated in a press release on the council agenda, adding that it aims to achieve an increase in the EU minimum excise duty rates on alcohol, particularly spirits.

But as he presented the programme to MEPs on Wednesday (5 July), the Finnish prime minister Matti Vanhanen - a well known non-drinker - focused on more prominent issues, such as the EU constitution and enlargement.

"During our presidency, we will try to look outwards and inwards," he said, adding he does not agree with "pessimistic speeches about the crisis in the EU, I believe the current problems can be overcome."

Helsinki has already announced it will attempt to move on with the constitution debate through a series of consultations with other national capitals.

But Mr Vanhanen has pointed out that the EU can already reform its decision-making through the provisions of the current treaties, stressing that the bloc cannot wait until all the institutional disputes are resolved.

The Nordic presidency aspires to push forward the idea of more integration in the police and judiciary areas by using a special legal procedure to shift these policies to another level of decision-making, with more powers for the European Commission and parliament and less unanimous voting among member states.

Enlargement, REACH and SWIFT

On enlargement, the Finns will have to tackle the looming dispute between Turkey and Cyprus, with Ankara getting messages from Europe that its membership talks could be halted unless there is a major move to open its ports and airspace to Greek Cypriot ships.

The Finnish presidency is also ready to support the European Commission's opinion on the readiness of Bulgaria and Romania to join the bloc next January.

Mr Vanhanen told MEPs that he believes Europe should remain open, arguing that "enlargement is also our strategic answer to the challenges of globalisation."

But apart from other previously-promoted topics of the Finnish presidency - such as more cooperation with Russia and pushing through legislative packages such as the chemical law REACH or the services directive - Helsinki will also have to tackle unexpected events.

The most recent, the SWIFT affair, involves a Belgian international payments company which transferred Europeans' private bank details to Washington.

Paula Lehtomaki, the Finnish Europe minister, told FT Deutschland "In my view and in that of the Finnish presidency, citizens should not only be protected against terrorism, but also against the illegal transfer of personal data such as bank account information."

The presidency is supposed to lead a debate on the issue along with the European Commission later on Wednesday in the Strasbourg plenary session.

Transparency and Latin

Helsinki also aims to imrpove the transparency of ministerial meetings, in line with a decision taken by the EU leaders at the last sumit in June.

But is has also announced its own communications initiative - to publish weekly EU news bulletins in Latin on its website every Wednesday.

Mia Lahti, the editor of the Finnish presidency's website argued "Using Latin is a way of paying tribute to European civilization and it serves to remind people of European society's roots, stretching back to ancient times," according to UK daily The Guardian.

The British paper reported that the Finns' move was praised by both classicists as well as the Vatican - the only other country to broadcast news in Latin.