FORUM – Nothing To Declare

23 Mar 2004

Traveling around in Europe is a great experience for a food and wine lover insofar as you can get a crescendo of variety and tastes. You can enjoy Catalan cooking, food and wine from Alsace, Bordeaux wine and shellfish from Biscay. It is easy to get passionate over the prosciutto of Parma or San Daniele and Pecorino and Parmigiano cheeses. Many of the wines from Veneto and Piedmont offer you magnificent pleasure, and it’s not that pleasurable to eat pizzas in other places, when you have tasted pizzas in Naples. If you travel down the Rhine or the Moselle rivers in Germany, some of the local white wines give you a slow journey to heaven. From a northern European view, this variety in excellent foods and wines is truly astounding.

At northern latitudes, it’s almost impossible to grow grapes. Too little sunshine, too much rain, not enough high temperatures. So countries like Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway have to import all their wines. All except Denmark sell wine and spirits in special stores, with traditionally high taxes.

Believe it or not, as a wine lover in my country I have to go to a special state-controlled shop—the Systembolaget—to get wine to go with my the steak or pasta or fish. I have no choice. I can’t buy my wine in the supermarkets or in any local shop just around the corner. This is the situation in my regulated country.

The Swedish alcohol monopoly was approved by the EU-commission until 2007 in weird circumstances and under strong pressure from our government. You might wonder why.

200 years ago the Swedes drank quite a lot and the standard of living was poor. As a reaction, a sobriety movement became strong and there were even plans for total prohibition, like in the United States in the Twenties. In 1922 we had a national vote—for or against alcohol prohibition—and the result was 51 % against and 49 % in favor of a total ban.

The sobriety movement lost but did not give up. Instead the state introduced a little book, the motbok, in which each person was allocated a certain number of bottles according to age, gender and living conditions. The quantity was often restricted to a liter of aquavit a month, and married woman were not allowed to have a motbok.

My father told me the following story. In 1949, when he was 19 years old, he and a friend were sitting in a public place drinking soda. They tried, as many other inexperienced youths did (and still do), to mix the soda with some vodka, when suddenly a special ‘alcohol spy’—employed by the local police—noticed them and took them in for questioning. Happily these alcohol spies are gone now, but still many organizations and the government are trying to prevent and even stop people here from drinking beer and wine in a natural enjoyable way.

Some of these organizations even want Sweden to leave the EU, because, as they see it, its laws concerning alcohol are far too liberal. One must understand that sobriety has deep roots in many lobby organizations and far up in the government, but is sympathized with by less than 25 percent of the Swedish population.

The official warnings and statements from the government are:

Juvenile drinking will increase
Alcohol-related diseases will increase
Cases of violence and assault will increase

Perhaps these assumptions are right, perhaps they are wrong. We are living in a new century; new generations are growing fast and new drinking patterns are developing quickly.

As a Slow Food member, it is natural for me to be concerned about matters relating to alcohol, but it is just as important to care for taste variety, to understand and learn more about beers and wines, local or domestic, and to let all producers operate on a free market.
This can’t be made possible by a retail-chain such as the state-controlled Systembolaget, which has virtually sole rights to introduce, judge, market and sell all wines and spirits. Surely such a system needs a rethink.

The company is now also at the center of a large bribing scandal. Many monopoly shops have been favoring certain brands, and many shop managers have received holidays, gifts and, of course, bottles . The bribe story is extra-delicate as the female managing director of the company is married to the Swedish prime minister.

The high taxes on wine and liquor in Scandinavia create another phenomenon—that of smuggling. From Germany to Denmark, prices are different. From Denmark to Sweden, prices are even more different. From Sweden to Norway, finally, the price difference is shockingly wide. A recent report reveals that the Norwegians bought three million liters of wine from January to June 2003 in Sweden. These are large quantities for a country with just over 4.3 million inhabitants. Border trade among all countries in Scandinavia will continue, if the price differences are not eliminated.

The double standard reaches an extreme with another state-owned company called Vin & Spritcentralen. This is the company which produces the famous, bestselling Absolut Vodka.

In recent years, V&S has bought shares in several foreign companies, such as Jim Beam Brands, USA, Rémy Cointreau, France, Highland Distillers, Scotland and De Danske Spritfabrikker, Denmark, and also vodka distillers in Finland, Germany, the Czech Republic and Estonia. The company is also owner of one of the oldest and most famous wine and spirit store chains in Denmark, Kjaer & Sommerfeldt.

Now the V&S club offers its Swedish members discounts when shopping at these stores. So the Swedes take the ferry or cross the long bridge to Denmark to shop freely in a country with different alcohol laws.

The government in Stockholm will soon face the following challenges.

On October 1 2003, the Danish and the Finnish governments reduced their tax on alcohol by 30%. A minor invasion of Swedes traveling to Denmark is already a fact.

As of January 1 2004, it will be acceptable for any adult to carry 10 liters of spirits, 90 liters of wine and countless bottles of beer across the borders between EU-countries.

On March 1 2004, the Finnish government reduced their tax on alcohol by 30%.

As of May 1 2004, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia will be full members of the European Community. These countries have a long tradition in making beer and vodka and prices in these countries are very low.

The sign ‘Nothing to declare, goods to declare’ still meets travelers between the Scandinavian countries. But for how long?

Bengt Danebring is a member of the board of the Slow Food Scania Convivium in Sweden

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