ESTONIA - Political situation
Jüri Ratas, whose Centre Party is popular with Estonia's large Russian-speaking minority, formed a coalition government in November 2016 with the left-wing SDE and conservative IRL parties.
He lost the March 2019 elections to the centre-right Reform party of Kaja Kallas, but went on to form a new right-wing coalition including the controversial eurosceptic anti-immigrant EKRE party.
Within these two governments alcohol policy has been an important issue and significant changes, to different directions, have been introduced.
Estonia has been among the top-drinkers in Europe and thus also in the world, for a long time. In 2007/2008 per capita consumption reached almost 14 litres. There was no comprehensive alcohol policy, and individual changes were small. For a long time, ministers of social affairs, responsible for alcohol policy, came from the Reform Party. Reform Party is a liberal and classical-liberal political party which is known to stand for the interests of business and trade.
Still, under their leadership, an alcohol policy green paper process was started in 2011. The government approved the paper in February 2014, and it was supposed to become a basis for the future alcohol policy. In 2015 Jevgeni Ossinovski, from the Social Democrats, became health minister and introduced a bold alcohol policy bill. The bill was discussed and criticised by coalition partners for almost a year until a new government with the Center Party was formed. Together with new prime minister Jüri Ratas, alcohol policy became a priority and was soon adopted.
The new alcohol policy introduced stricter rules to alcohol advertising, the way alcoholic drinks are displayed in stores and increased alcohol excise taxes. In addition, treatment and rehabilitation systems were improved, and enforcement mechanisms strengthened.
The influence of cross-border trade
Steep beer tax increases (almost 90%) in 2017 skyrocketed cross-border trade with Latvia and caused sharp public criticism. Minister Ossinovski was mainly the target of that blame, even though as a health minister he wasn't directly responsible for tax questions. But as a "father" of the new alcohol policy, he was the leading spokesperson for the issue.
At the same time, minister Ossinovski was strongly supported by the health organisations and also by international alcohol policy society. Estonian Temperance Union nominated him as the Person of the Year in 2017 and Eurocare awarded Estonia with European Award for Reducing Alcohol Harm in 2018 for their extraordinary commitment to alcohol policy.
In 2017 Estonia has placed alcohol policy high on the EU political agenda, with Council conclusions asking the European Commission to address cross- border trade issue. Estonia lead the EU Members States in asking the European Commission to produce a comprehensive labelling regime in the EU and end the exemption granted to the alcohol industry back in 2011.
Additionally Estonia has introduced a progressive alcohol policy at the national level and has showed real leadership in the area of alcohol policy.
European Alcohol Policy Alliance Eurocare
As the dissatisfaction with the situation grew, it affected the popularity of the Social Democratic Party. According to polls, the party lost its support, and party leader health minister Ossinovski decided in April 2018 to step down as minister to focus on the party ahead of the 2019 parliamentary election. After the Social Democratic Party suffered a loss in the election and was left in the opposition, Ossinovski announced that he would stand down as the leader of the party.
New government - 2019
Parliamentary elections were held in Estonia on 3 March 2019. The Reform Party remained the largest party, gaining 4 seats for a total of 34 and the Conservative People's Party had the largest gain overall, increasing their seat count by 12 to a total of 19 seats.
In a move which sparked protest in the society, Jüri Ratas of the Centre Party turned down an offer by Kaja Kallas of the winning Reform party to form a joint coalition, instead forming a coalition between the Centre Party, EKRE, and Pro Patria. This became Jüri Ratas' second cabinet.
Both EKRE and Pro Patria had promised during their elections campaign that they would decrease alcohol taxes to tackle cross-border trade. Center Party favoured tax peace, meaning they promised that there wouldn´t be any change. As prime ministers party was alone against their coalition partners, it was decided that alcohol taxes would be lowered, if the budget allows.
The new minister of finance, Martin Helme from EKRE, made it a priority and pushed the amendment through. A 25 beer and spirits tax decrease was approved, and it came to force on July 1, 2019.