The European Union is in trouble. The economic and financial crisis are trouble enough but they have also laid open a political crisis. And together those three, economic, financial and political crisis, are fuelling a social crisis. Especially children and young people suffer from the lack of leadership by decision-makers, from friction and the rise of national interest in EU policy making.

Now, all this is well-documented by now and reported on throughout the European Union on a daily basis. People around the world see news of summits stuck, of reforms failing, of austerity killing people, of burning cars in Athens, London, Stockholm.

The European Union is in trouble because it burdens its young generation extremely heavily. Youth unemployment reaches new heights and cannot be tackled it seems. Another indicator is the health and well-being of young Europeans. Youth in Europe understands that they are the first generation since the end of World War II that is worse off compared to their parents’ generation.

Council of Europe Secretary-General Jagland said already in October 2011:

Necessary and understandable austerity measures should not undermine Europe’s social contract. Europe’s financial and fiscal crisis is starting to have an impact on social cohesion as well as on public trust in our democratic institutions. In such challenging times […] youth are affected the most.”

It’s 2013 now. Summer 2013 and we can see all the troubles:

Children’s and young people’s overall emotional well-being and capacity to learn are negatively affected by the crisis. A report from the Glasgow City Council highlights how pupils’ emotional stability underpins their ability to learn basic educational skills.
In Estonia a notable rise in the use of alcohol and other drugs among youth is reported and the same reports come from Southern Europe.

And the question is, what is the European Commission doing about it?

If you wonder why the European Commission in particular, let’s take a look at Article 9 of the Treaty of Lisbon: “The Union shall have an institutional framework which shall aim to promote its values, advance its objectives, serve its interests, those of its citizens and those of the Member States, and ensure the consistency, effectiveness and continuity of its policies and actions.”

And especially three provisions in Article 9 D follow suit to give a clear mandate and mission to the European Commission:

1. The Commission shall promote the general interest of the Union and take appropriate initiatives to that end.

3. The Commission’s term of office shall be five years. The members of the Commission shall be chosen on the ground of their general competence and European commitment from persons whose independence is beyond doubt.

8. The Commission, as a body, shall be responsible to the European Parliament.”

I think it’s clear that the European Commission has to act to promote the common good of the entire Union, not one specific country or any other interest and that they are indirectly accountable (via the European Parliament) to the European people.

And so this brings me to the topic of alcohol policy in the EU because since the beginning of 2013 the European Union does not have an EU alcohol strategy in place anymore. As it says in the

“COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS
An EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol related harm”

from October 2006 in section 7. Conclusion:

With this Communication, the Commission, in response to the Council’s invitation in 2001, presents a comprehensive strategy to reduce alcohol-related harm in Europe until the end of 2012…”

So far, the European Commission has not come up with either an evaluation of the EU alcohol strategy that ended in 2012 or with a draft proposal for a new and better EU alcohol strategy.

Now what the European Commission, the Directorate General for Public Health and Consumers is doing, however, is to run the European Alcohol and Health Forum. As the global community goes into a very different direction with adopting the Global Action Plan to control and prevent non-communicable diseases (2013) and the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy (2010), the European Commission stands still and is delaying and postponing even the publication of the evaluation of the EU alcohol strategy – that by now is outdated.

It’s also important to remind ourselves that the EU alcohol strategy was not a very good strategy in the first place, when it came into being. The most positive part about was that it came into being, but the global alcohol industry managed to water down effective measures and aggressively outmanoeuvred scientific evidence and civil society expertise.

The mission of the now outdated EU alcohol strategy reads as follows:

The Communication aims at mapping actions which have already been put in place by the Commission and Member States, and identifies on the one hand good practices which have led to positive results, and on the other hand, areas of socio-economic importance and Community relevance where further progress could be made.”

So, it’s actually not really a strategy but a mapping of practices in place, which – as evidence shows – have mostly been ineffective and costly measures. And until this day, the civil society, public health researchers, children and youth in Europe and the broader society are still waiting for a word from the European Commission about “areas of socio-economic importance and Community relevance where further progress could be made.”

As we all wait, the EU continues to be in trouble: lost productivity, paramount costs of alcohol harm to society, uncharted pain and suffering, and people dying.

That the European Commission is inactive is strange because the Member States have called numerous times for a new EU alcohol strategy. They did so both in the CNAPA meeting in the fall of 2011 and they did so in an official letter sponsored by 13 member States.

The CNAPA (Committee on National Alcohol Policy and Action) is one pillar of the EU alcohol strategy. It’s for the governments. Another pillar is the European Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF), which is for stakeholders – including Big Alcohol. In the EU alcohol strategy it says the following about the EAHF:

6.3.1. Alcohol and Health Forum

Using the EU Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health as a model, the Commission will set up an Alcohol and Health Forum by June 2007, which will put together experts from different stakeholder organisations and representatives from Member States, other EU institutions and agencies. The overall objective of this Forum will be to support, provide input for and monitor the implementation of the strategy outlined in this Communication.”

As Europe waits for a new and better EU alcohol strategy, it’s important to question: why is the European Commission continuing with the EAHF if there’s no new strategy in place, despite call by Member States for it?

The EAHF is only one, and to be frank, a very minor and unimportant part of the overall EU alcohol strategy, because any forum that involves Big Alcohol must deteriorate into a theatre of false evidence, biased information and showing off social responsibility. As long as I have been attending the EAHF, this happened every meeting and the track record of the global alcohol industry speaks for itself.

When it comes to assessing the usefulness of the EAHF, I think it’s important to look at and learn from the way civil society chose and chooses to operate in terms of tobacco control.

They chose a clear and unequivocal stance not to cooperate with Big Tobacco, not to join fora where Big Tobacco was welcome because one key message was and is that the global tobacco industry does not have any place in public health policy making; they don’t have a place in discussing policies; they don’t have a place in consultations of stakeholders and they don’t have a place in making commitments to reduce tobacco harm. The civil society sector in the tobacco field was and is crystal clear on the fact that there is a fundamental conflict of interest.

This conflict of interest is the same for Big Alcohol in policy making to reduce alcohol harm because to reduce alcohol harm, Europe needs to reduce its alcohol use. But that would mean less profit for Big Alcohol. And as corporation their purpose is to accumulate profit. This means there’ll always be a conflict of interest.

Therefore it is wise for civil society to leave the EAHF, I think. It is wise to learn and be inspired by our friends in tobacco control. And it is wise to make a step into the right direction towards being unmistakably clear that Big Alcohol has nothing whatsoever to do in even discussing, let alone taking action, to reduce and prevent alcohol harm.

I also took a look at the task of the European Commission according to the Lisbon treaty above because this allows to refute any argument that civil society must remain part of the EAHF in order not to lose opportunities to meet and discuss, and hopefully influence the European Commission. It’s clear from the Lisbon Treaty provisions that openness towards civil society is a key task of the European Commission, and so the European Commission, like in this case DG Sanco will not be able to dictate the terms of openness – in the sense that they could exclude civil society organizations from processes because tey choose not to join certain bodies, fora, working groups that are set up. This is obviously a democracy argument.

It’s also important to realize that civil society organisations have had very little advocacy influence on this European Commission. The best example is that we do not have any new EU alcohol strategy, let alone a better one. There’s not even an evaluation of the outdated one. In this context it’s important to highlight that DG Sanco, especially the former chair Ms Despina Spanou and the former Commissioner Mr Dalli, and that the European Commission, especially Mr Barroso are industry-friendly.

Concluding, it is crucial to state that it has become important to leave the EAHF because

  1. there is no legal ground for being there, since there is no EU alcohol strategy;
  2. the EAHF has outrageously favored Big Alcohol because they could use it as propaganda machine and theatre stage to display how much they care – while they at the same time lobby aggressively against evidence-based policies, target children and youth with their marketing all over the world and portray women and girls as sexualized objects;
  3. the EAHF as forum for civil society to meet DG Sanco and the European Commission has underachieved, which is obvious given the current state of alcohol policy in Europe;
  4. the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty guarantee participation in and access to the European Commission and the decision-making processes that affect the people that civil society organizations represent;
  5. the EAHF has been promoted as a best-practice – despite its obvious shortcomings and failures – for other Member States to use, which leads to a process where countries like Portugal create a similar forum and bring Big Alcohol to the table.

All this calls into question the overall approach the European Commission has chosen to tackling alcohol harm in Europe. To name one example of the shortcomings, that I and many others have over the years addressed and communicated to the European Commission: The EU is the heaviest alcohol consuming region in the world and there are 9 million children of alcoholics living in the EU. And yet, not even every Member State has reliable data about the amount of children of alcoholics who live within their respective borders.

Alcohol policy is headed into the wrong direction in Europe. It seems to disappear because of a European Commission that is favouring Big Alcohol over the common interest of the people in this continent – a clear and on-going breach of the Lisbon Treaty. At the same time alcohol consumption is also headed into the wrong direction: it goes up, especially among children and youth, and associated harms are on the rise, too.

It is in this time of crisis that might burden generations to come, that we all who work on alcohol policy within civil society organisations, universities and public authorities need to ask ourselves honestly: are we part of the problem, possibly? And where can we look to find better solutions?

I think it’s time for civil society to take decisive action, to stand up for democracy in Europe and a society of well-being and health, driven by the people.

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