"The commission is suggesting the bloc's 27 member states agree smoking in "enclosed public places, workplaces and public transport" be banned by 2012, while children's exposure to tobacco should be specifically tackled and "efforts to give up tobacco use and pictorial warnings on tobacco packages" should be encouraged."
Predictably, it's got a strong reaction from some:
"The UK Independence Party says it will further harm UK pubs and accused Brussels of crossing the line.
"Nobody pretends that smoking is a good thing, but it is legal," said UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom.
"These bullies seem to have no truck with freedom, liberty or tolerance. Well in that case we shall have to take it back. And if that means a certain level of civil disobedience, well so be it," Mr Bloom added."
I've also seen the words "Big Brother" being bandied about. Of course, this all assumes that the EU (or the Commission) has the power to bring in such a ban. It doesn't.
First of all, all the Commission is proposing is a Recommendation, which would call on member states to make the changes themselves. The recommendation would have to be passed by the Council, and wouldn't be legally binding - article 249 EC* states that "Recommendations and opinions shall have no binding force." Basically, all it would do is say "The EU thinks that..."
Even if the Commission wanted to propose a legally binding smoking ban, it couldn't - the EU doesn't have the competence. Article 152 EC outlines the extremely limited competence of the EU when it comes to health - 152(4)(c) states that the EU can adopt "incentive measures designed to protect and improve human health, excluding any harmonization of the laws and regulations of the Member States." [emphasis mine].
There's also case law on the legality of legislation concerning the tobacco industry (mainly laws on labeling and advertising). Tobacco Advertising (Case C-376/98) and Tobacco Advertising II (Case C-380/03) in particular illustrate the limited extent of EU competence when it comes to health: the ECJ said (as a crude summary) that other legal bases [treaty articles] cannot be used to circumvent the express exclusion of the harmonization of laws in the health area, and that health aspects can be taken into account when shaping legislation as long as health isn't the primary purpose behind the legislation (i.e. legislation affecting the free movement of goods and the ability of magazines with tobacco ads in them to circulate freely in the single market).
So if the EU can't enact such legislation, then why is the Commission making such a big fuss? EUobserver hints at it:
"...a large majority of Europeans favour smoking ban in the workplace (84%), restaurants (79%), as well as also bars, clubs and pubs (65%)."
The Commission is jumping on the bandwagon and trying to look as if it's doing something useful and popular - and this gives the impression that the Commission is more powerful than it really is. It will convince Eurosceptics (further) that the Commission is an extremely powerful body that can interfere with practically anything, while it's likely that most pro-Europeans will have doubts about whether the EU should have such competence in this area. And those neutral to the debate? They probably won't notice it much, but it confuses further the question of who has responsibility for what. David Keating has a good article on the Commission's opportunism and how the announcement could affect perceptions of the Commission.
The trouble is that the Commission is inflating expectations of what it can do without having the power to influence the outcome, so that whatever the result, the Commission is likely to annoy people and loose support and make it look big, powerful, interfering and incompetent, rather than making itself appear a pro-active force acting in the citizens' interests. Perhaps the tendency to make such announcements is linked to the top-heavy nature of the Commission?
There should probably be health warnings for Commission statements in the future, such as:
"Warning: this statement contains irrelevant political blather."
"Warning: this statement could lead to legislation."
"Warning: this statement could be a product of boredom and should not be taken seriously."
*Treaty Establishing the European Community