Internal market panel plan runs into opposition

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Series Details Vol.4, No.6, 12.2.98, p7
Publication Date 12/02/1998
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Date: 12/02/1998

By Peter Chapman

INTERNAL Market Commissioner Mario Monti is preparing for a battle with colleagues over a new plan for dismantling illegal barriers to the free movement of goods and services in the EU.

Monti wants to set up a panel of member state experts to decide whether legal action should be taken against specific national rules on the advertising and marketing of products.

Governments often claim that such restrictions are needed to protect ordinary citizens on, for example, health grounds. It would be up to the panel to decide whether such arguments were justified.

Likely targets of the new regime would be laws such as France's Loi Evin, which limits television coverage of sports events where alcohol is advertised.

But Monti is facing an uphill struggle to convince fellow Commissioners to support the plan, according to industry sources. They claim many are reluctant to change the status quo, which allows for court action in highly controversial cases such as the Loi Evin to be shelved.

"The Commission has difficulties making up its mind on this issue," said Marion Wolfers, secretary-general of the EC Wine Committee. "But we feel that if it really wants to respect its own philosophy and the EU treaties there will be no problem."

She said industry had mobilised a "large network of lobbying" to persuade other departments and Commissioners to support Monti's plan, which follows up a 1996 Green Paper on commercial communications.

Other industry sources name French Commissioners Yves-Thibault de Silguy and Edith Cresson, and Health Commissioner Pádraig Flynn as key opponents of the proposals.

All three are supporters of the Loi Evin, which heads a list of outstanding cases. A top political aide claimed there was agreement within the Commission "not to touch Loi Evin", even though Monti and his officials support court action.

Given the sensitivity of the French law, many believe it would be better for the Commission to take a decision on it at the next meeting of its infringements committee in March before deciding whether to agree to Monti's panel.

"The Commission has two options: it can either adopt the Monti proposals first, which means a link will be established with Loi Evin, or it can decide something first on Loi Evin. A lot of this is getting very political," said Wolfers.

Critics of the current system claim it is wide open to political manoeuvring which has little to do with internal market concerns. Supporters of the Monti proposals say they offer a way out of this problem.

The infringement panel, made up of officials from each member state, would decide, on a case by case basis, whether measures put in place to limit commercial communications were 'proportional' to their objectives - a requirement under EU rules.

If they were deemed to be excessive, the Commission would put pressure on the relevant member state to change the law, backed by the threat of legal action in the European Court of Justice.

"This approach seems to us to be the only pragmatic way to proceed. At the moment, cases are subject to strong political influences within the European Commission itself and to a lengthy process in the Court of Justice," said Alistair Tempest of the Federation of European Direct Marketing (FEDMA).

Commission wants to set up a panel of Member State experts to decide whether legal action should be taken against specific national rules on the advertising and marketing of products.

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