Sunday

17th Jan 2021

MEPs split on tobacco deal with PMI

  • Some MEPs told EU commissioner Georgieva (l) there should be a bridging deal, while others said that the agreement should not be renewed. (Photo: European Parliament)

Several members of the European Parliament proposed to EU commissioner Kristalina Georgieva on Thursday (25 February) that there should be an extension of the 12-year tobacco agreement with Philip Morris International (PMI) when it expires in July, while others called on her to let the deal lapse.

“Going back in history, the parliament was very supportive of signing the agreement for a reason, because at that time we had nothing,” Georgieva told MEPs at a plenary session.

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“Now the parliament is not so supportive, there are diverging views. Why? Because we have better tools to fight illegal smuggling. But we don’t quite have them just yet.”

The EU and member states signed an agreement with PMI in 2004, which made them partners in the fight against cigarette smuggling and counterfeiting, and included the tobacco multinational transferring around €1 billion over a 12-year period.

Since then, the EU has also signed similar agreements with the three other major tobacco firms, but the PMI one is the first to expire, on 9 July.

But the EU has also adopted a tobacco products directive that covers many aspect of the agreement, and it has also signed up to a World Health Organisation treaty that discourages cooperation with the tobacco industry.

“We have new tools today. The world has changed,” the Bulgarian commissioner said.

However, it will still take three years before the directive is in force, and an estimated six years before the WHO treaty is in place.

“Now the question is whether or not between today and the time when we have the directive in place - 2019 - or the time when we have the protocol enacted in 2022 - we still need a legally binding instrument to fight illegal trade,” she said.

Bridging deal

Some MEPs advocated for a bridging deal, while others said that the agreement should not be renewed.

“Nobody is saying the existing agreements are perfect, in fact they are far from perfect,” said centre-left British MEP Derek Vaughan. But he advocated for an extension “at least as interim measure before the WHO protocol is put in place”, adding that the new deal should be more transparent.

Dutch MEP Dennis de Jong said his group, the far left GUE, is against a renewal.

“The most important argument is that WHO rules require any appearance of a conflict of interest should be avoided. We should not become dependent on money that has blood sticking to it,” said De Jong.

Divided house

While many MEPs were critical of the commission, there was no clear agreement on the deal - even members of the same group were expressing different views.

Georgieva said the commission would “take this debate into account so we can make an informed decision in the near future, in the next weeks”.

But with the house divided and no clear majority either way, the commission will have little difficulty to pursue its own desired path and to point to the “divergence” in opinions in parliament.

The MEPs will vote on a non-binding text about the PMI agreement in the second week of March during their session in Strasbourg, which should show a clearer picture of the opinion of the parliamentarians.

But Georgieva did not answer the question from one MEP if the commission would await the results of the resolution before making up its mind.

When this website put the same question to the European Commission, a spokesperson only referred back to what Georgieva had (not) said.

The long-awaited assessment

The debate in Brussels took place a day after the commission published its long-awaited “technical assessment” of the PMI deal. The document said that, although there was no causal relation that could be proved, the evidence suggested the PMI deal had helped to reduce cigarette smuggling.

It questioned whether the agreement was still relevant today, but noted that it is up to the college of commissioners to decide whether or not it should be renewed. However, it contained few solid arguments for the commission to base such a renewal on.

“I’m sorry, but I do not believe that there are sufficient elements [in the assessment] to renew the existing agreement,” said Green Belgian MEP Bart Staes. His colleague from the centre-right group, Graessle, however said she “could use the same arguments and reach another conclusion”.

In any case, most MEPs agreed they have had to wait far too long for the 31-page report, for which some MEPs have been asking since 2014.

“When the commission ignores the parliament’s request for over two years and turns up [with the report] just before the debate, that is just an example of how real power lies with the commission rather than with the parliament,” said the British eurosceptic MEP Jonathan Arnott, of the UK Independence Party.

“A student could have done this work in less than six months, whereas the commission took 18 months,” said French Green MEP Jose Bove.

But according to Georgieva, it took so long because of the nature of the research. Trying to clarify the causal relation a single agreement had on an illicit activity such as cigarette smuggling is a methodological nightmare.

“There have been very fair comments made that it has taken the Commission time to complete the assessment. Just listening to us in this chamber, the divergence of views, the difficulty of questions that are being asked, this is why it has taken us so much time,” said Georgieva.

Incidentally, many of the points in the assessment, have been made by previous publications, including in EUobserver’s reporting.

Last December, EUobserver published a four-part series of articles about the EU's agreement with tobacco company PMI

Part one: Will EU renew $1.25bn deal with tobacco firm PMI?

Part two: EU sleuths ignore special powers on tobacco smuggling

Part three: Scant evidence EU tobacco deal curbed smuggling

Part four: How did the EU spend its €110 million in tobacco money?

MEP defends confidentiality of tobacco meeting

Discussion on the value of EU deals with top tobacco firms had to be held behind closed doors, said the German MEP who organised it: “Some people didn't want to be quoted”.

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