The European Commission privately warned the Government two years ago that legislation to set minimum alcohol prices and lay down mandatory labelling in Ireland may conflict with European Union law.
The confidential commission document has cast doubt over key elements of the Public Health Alcohol Bill, published by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during his time as Minister for Health in 2015, but which is not yet law.
The commission’s verdict on the Bill was sent to Dublin two years ago, but has not been published before. It raises significant concerns about the compatibility with EU law of several of the Bill’s proposals.
It seeks to introduce minimum pricing; the separation of alcohol from other products in supermarkets and retail outlets and strong health warnings, calorie and alcohol content; and restrictions on advertising and promotions.
The commission said the Government had failed to spell out how the restrictions on trade proposed under the Bill could avail of health policy exemptions allowed for in European law.
Some proposed restrictions constitute restrictions on trade or the freedom to provide services, but acknowledges that restraints may be justifiable on public health ground.
However, in a number of instances, the Bill will fall foul of European regulations unless the Government satisfies the commission that the measures are warranted on public health grounds.
The Government was also invited to consider whether less restrictive measures could achieve the same health goals.
Following a series of Seanad amendments, the Government has since sent an updated version of the Bill to the commission for comments, though the commission’s latest views are not yet known.
However, most of the legislation has not changed. The drinks industry has been lobbying heavily against the Bill.
Speaking in the Seanad recently, the Taoiseach said that he did not envisage any further amendments to the Bill
“I certainly do not anticipate that the Dáil will revise it. This House has already done the revision so I do not anticipate that the Dáil will revise it. We are not contemplating any further amendments to it,” he said. He published the Bill in December 2015 as minister for health.
It stalled for more than a year from October 2016 after a large number of Senators, predominantly from Fine Gael, opposed the structural segregation of alcohol from other products on the grounds it would be too costly for small retailers.
The legislation was finally passed in the Upper House in December after Mr Harris agreed concessions for smaller retailers, but it has yet to come back to the Dáil.