Few countries take beer more seriously than Belgium.
As a nation, it is responsible for producing some of the most exciting and nuanced brews to reach the UK’s shores. To Belgians, access to beer is almost seen as a basic human right and it is inconceivable to think of the country’s leaders sanctioning a ban that limits what is available.
Talk to consumers there and they think it would be laughable. Tell them authorities in the UK are doing just that and they think you’re making it up.
Disbelief was also a common reaction among the influential figures I met in Brussels last week at the European Commission to discuss the unstoppable rise in the number of councils bringing in bans by the back door.
Reducing the Strength schemes now exist in more than 70 local authorities, operating without any checks or guidelines.
We know from the many readers who have contacted us that refusing to sign up is seldom presented as an option and those who question the authority’s motives are threatened with additional controls on their business or the spectre of a full-blown licensing review.
As I type, yet another example has crossed my desk of heavy-handed tactics to force retailers to agree to what, we must remember, are voluntary schemes. It involves a letter from the police implying a shop will be fined £20,000 for not withdrawing certain brands from sale. It goes on to say that 80 stores have backed the measure, with more than a hint that it should too.
It’s certainly a twisted interpretation of the case-by-case approach authorities have been told they must adopt.
Retailers want to work within the rules, they aren’t looking for ways to duck their responsibilities and the trade has shown time and again that it can work alongside authorities to tackle problems.
By asking retailers to boycott products, authorities are interfering with the basic principles of competition.
Arbitrarily singling out one product for blacklisting over another is a clear intervention in its legitimate supply. At a fundamental level, the issue is about a point of law.
This is the case Off Licence News has made to the European Commission. Just as retailers must operate to the letter of the law, so must those in power.
And now we have called on Brussels to give its view.
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