Under pressure from Brussels, Czechs ban export of hard alcohol

Photo: CTK

The Czech government bowed to pressure from the European Union on Thursday evening, imposing an immediate ban on exports of hard alcohol. The ban came amidst warnings the European Union was planning to impose its own ban on imports of Czech spirits in the wake of a spate of methanol poisoning that’s so far claimed the lives of 23 people.

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
Prime minister Petr Nečas appeared at a special briefing on Thursday evening to announce a ban – effective immediately – on the export of all spirits with an alcohol content above 20%. Customs officers were immediately dispatched to police the ban on the country’s borders. Mr Nečas told reporters widening the existing ban on domestic sales to include exports was preferable to letting the EU introduce its own ban, which would be more difficult to remove than restrictions introduced by Prague:

“It’s clearly better and more advantageous for the Czech Republic if the imposition and removal of this export ban is in the hands of the Czech authorities, the Czech government, in the form of emergency regulations announced by the Health Ministry. Rather than the European Commission imposing a ban tomorrow that would last two months, with all the complications in eventually lifting it.”

The announcement came after the latest emergency meeting over the methanol affair, which has claimed the lives of 23 people and left many more in hospital. The fatal poisonings and the race to find the bootleggers who produced the tainted alcohol have been front-page news not only in the Czech Republic but around the world.

Photo: CTK
Neighbouring Slovakia and Poland have already introduced their own bans on the import of Czech spirits, and the issue is being closely monitored in Brussels. The spokesman for the EU's Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner, Frédéric Vincent, spoke to reporters before Prague announced its measures:

“The Commission has been following the situation in the Czech Republic for days now, and liaising on a daily basis with the Czech authorities on what to do. We’re aware that a meeting took place yesterday with the Czech government to discuss additional measures, and what we expect from the Czech authorities now is to align the domestic measures to the export scheme. So if bottles of 20% of alcohol are banned on the market in the Czech Republic, they should also be banned for export. But this will have to come from the Czech Republic, as soon as possible.”

It didn’t take long for the government to bow to that pressure, deciding that a Czech export ban was very much the lesser of two evils. But the move has angered Czech spirits producers, who are at the moment suffering enormous financial losses. On Friday the Union of Spirits Producers and Importers held their own briefing for the Czech media. Anthony Schofield is the CEO of the country’s best known alcoholic spirit, the herbal liqueur Becherovka:

“All of the spirit producers and importers represented here today, which cover 80% of the volume and value of tax collected in the Czech Republic, are in no way associated or involved in producing, bottling or selling bad or illegal alcohol. None of our brands contains dangerous levels of methanol. This prohibition only penalises the reputable producers and importers and does not effectively solve the situation with the illegal producers. On the contrary this prohibition has already seriously damaged the reputation of Czech industry but also the image of the Czech Republic.”

Anthony Schofield,  photo: CTK
The organisation says for a start the government should have immediately banned the sale of those brands that had been tainted with methanol, mostly lesser-known, cheap imitations of vodka and rum. Brands where adequate quality controls were impossible should be outlawed, said the Union. The organisation also criticised the ‘certificates of origin’ for newly-produced alcohol being proposed by the Finance Ministry – saying most spirits producers already used them.