EU can now order Italy to cull thousands of ‘sick’ olive trees

The EU's top court ruled on Thursday the European Commission can order member states to cut down thousands of olive trees infected by deadly bacteria after Italian authorities halted the felling in December.

EU can now order Italy to cull thousands of 'sick' olive trees
The worst affected region is Puglia in southern Italy where it is estimated some 10 percent of its 11 million olive trees could be cut down. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Xyella fastidiosa, first spotted in 2013, is not harmful to humans but poses a serious threat to Italy's olive and orange groves and vineyards and there are fears it could spread to other European Union countries such as France or Spain.

The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice said the Commission “may require member states to remove all plants capable of being infected by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, even when there are no symptoms of infection, when such plants are in the vicinity of plants already affected.”

“That measure is proportionate to the objective of protecting plant health in the European Union and is justified by the precautionary principle,” it said in a statement.

The Commission, the EU's executive arm, has pressed Rome to destroy infected trees and those within 100 metres (yards) in an effort to control the spread of the disease.

The worst affected region is Puglia in southern Italy where it is estimated some 10 percent of its 11 million olive trees could be cut down.

Local prosecutors managed to halt the felling in December, arguing there was no proof of a clear link between the bacteria and the drying out of thousands of olive trees.

The court hearing their submission agreed to a halt but also decided to refer the issue to the ECJ, asking it to rule on whether the Commission, the EU's executive arm, was acting within the law.

“By today's judgement … the Court confirms the validity of the Commission's decision,” the ECJ said.

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KEY POINTS: Is the EU really planning to double the price of Swedish snus?

Claims over the weekend that the EU planned to bring in a new tax which will nearly double the price of Swedish 'snus' tobacco led to the hashtag #Swexit trending over the weekend. But a commission spokesman stressed on Monday that the story was inaccurate.

KEY POINTS: Is the EU really planning to double the price of Swedish snus?

Where does the claim come from? 

The Aftonbladet newspaper on Sunday ran a story based around a “secret, leaked” proposal from the European Commission for a new excise tax on tobacco which the newspaper claimed would be presented at the start of next month, with discussion then taking place between various EU member states. 

The article does not name a source or quote from or show any parts of the document, but it quotes Patrik Hildingsson, the head of communications at the snus producer Swedish Match, who it says has “received the coming report”. 

What was the reaction? 

The story generated a near viral response on Swedish Twitter. The Sweden Democrats party jumped on the story, with the Twitter account for the party’s EU MEPs tweeting using the hashtag #Swexit, which then started to trend. 

According to Charlie Weimers, one of the Sweden Democrats’ MEPs, the commission is proposing a 12.5 percent increase in tax on cigarettes, a 200 percent increase in taxes on snus, and 500 percent increase in taxes on tobacco-free snus.

In a way, this is unsurprising as snus is used by about 17 percent of people in Sweden. The tobacco product is made by grinding up tobacco with flavourings and other ingredients and placing it in small bags which are pushed under the upper lip. It has been linked to a higher incidence of mouth cancer, but is much less dangerous than smoking. 

Why is snus sensitive for Sweden? 

When Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, it was granted an exemption from the ban on oral tobacco products the European Union had brought in back in 1992. Companies are allowed to manufacture snus in Sweden and sell it to their citizens, but they are not allowed to sell snus in other EU counties.  

Is it true that the European Commission plans to force higher tax on snus? 

Dan Ferrie, a European spokesperson on tax issues, told the EU’s daily press briefing on Monday that the commission’s coming proposals on tobacco taxation would not affect Sweden’s freedom to tax the product. 

“Sweden has had an exemption since it entered the EU when it comes to the sale of snus,” he said. “The proposal that we are working on right now is not going to change that situation because the sale of snus is not permitted outside Sweden. Sweden ill as a result continue to have full freedom to set its own tax rate and tariffs for snus.” 

Already on Sunday, Sweden’s EU commissioner Ylva Johansson said that she had stressed to the commission developing the new proposals the “unreasonable consequences for Swedish snus” if it were to force a higher tax rate. 

“My judgement is that this proposal has not yet been developed to the level where it can be proposed,” she said in an sms to Swedish state TV broadcaster SVT. “Tax questions require unanimity within the Ministerial Council.”