I don’t suppose too many Coffee House readers will have noticed, but the EU is currently without a dedicated health commissioner. This is because the holder of that important office, a nondescript former Maltese politician called John Dalli, resigned last week in connection with an alleged lobbying scandal. So, until they can find another nondescript Maltese politican to replace him (the country’s foreign minister looks as if he is to be the lucky guy), our health needs at euro level are in the acting hands of one Maros Serfcovic, a Slovak, who is also the Commission’s commissioner for administration. This makes him the EU-equivalent of Jim Hacker, the Minister for Administrative Affairs, though in his case that was meant to be satirical.
The circumstances of Dalli’s resignation are slightly strange. A Maltese businessman, claiming to be a friend of his, went to a Swedish tobacco manufacturer and said that, if they paid him enough, he would get Dalli to alter a proposed tobacco products directive in their favour. The company, Swedish Match, makes snus, a disgusting-sounding flavoured snuff concoction which, thanks to the EU, is banned everywhere in Europe, except in Sweden. They declined the businessman’s offer and reported his approach to the Commission. The Commission investigated, and although it found no direct evidence implicating Dalli in wrongdoing, he decided to step down anyway, apparently hoping – in vain – that Commission president Barroso would stand in his way. Dalli therefore is in the curious, though not unheard of, position of a public official who resigns on the grounds that he is entirely innocent.
On the face of it, one might think that the Swedish snuff-makers had behaved rather well in this: blowing the whistle on some dodgy attempts at influence. Naturally enough, the sour-faced anti-tobacco lobby is having none of it. Rather, they suspect a gigantic conspiracy, whereby the industry has manufactured the resignation of Dalli so as to delay, perhaps indefinitely, the passage of his tobacco products directive. Dalli himself has hinted at this alleged plot. His directive has already been several years in the offing, showing that delay is not normally something the Brussels bureaucracy needs any help with, but there you are. Public health activists are some of the most accomplished conspiracy-spotters on the planet.
And what will we miss if the tobacco industry’s dastardly plan succeeds? Well, for one thing, cigarettes sold in plain packaging – a centrepiece of the former health commissioner’s proposals. But, hang on you say: isn’t the Department of Health trying to bring that into this country already? Yes, perhaps. A consultation on such proposals closed in August. Andrew Lansley was keen. We shall see what Jeremy Hunt thinks. Whatever the merits of the argument, it might be supposed that this is something for our own government to explore, without being obliged to wait for Brussels and its tortured legislative path, strewn with interest groups, trade-offs, grandstanding and the odd dicey Mediterranean businessman.
Britain is, in fact, one of the few EU countries inclined towards putting cigarettes into plain boxes. There are 20 published responses from member states to the Commission’s own consultation on the proposal, and half of them are flatly opposed to it. Of the other half, only five can be said to be in favour, and then only in a qualified sort of way, and the rest neutral, of no opinion or, in the case of Finland, sadly unintelligible to me for being available only in Finnish. Needless to say, such an expression of national opinion is of little consequence to the Commission which wants to impose plain fag packets in any case. Its position is, of course, wildly approved of by the European public health lobby, and hence their anger at the potential derailment by the Dalli affair. In response to that affair, they are calling for the rules on Brussels lobbying to be tightened up – ironic since it is the ease of, and its susceptibility to, their own lobbying that makes them love Brussels so much in the first place.
Richard Marsh is a former special adviser to two Conservative Secretaries of State for Health.Tags: European Union, Health