Christmas gift for snuff-loving Swedes

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THE FOUR countries negotiating membership of the European Union declared a Christmas breakthrough yesterday. The decision was all the more joyous for the Swedes since it came with an extra gift: wet snuff.

The Swedes are devotees of a form of chewing tobacco known as prillan. Such products, once sold in Britain as Skol Bandits, have been banned throughout the European Union on health grounds - a prohibition that will also apply to new entrants, although Sweden was to enjoy a five-year transition period.

But the prospect of even this caused the 800,000 people (a tenth of the Swedish population) who admit to using the snuff to choke on the prospect of EU membership, for which there is in any case little enthusiasm. They took their message to the streets in the form of car stickers bearing the legend: 'EC? Not without my snuff'.

Yesterday it was decided that Sweden could continue to use the snuff and even export it to Norway, though nowhere else. 'In the final phase, at the last minute, we were offered a Christmas gift - the final okay was given to Swedish snuff,' said the Swedish European Affairs Minister, Ulf Dinkelspiel.

Sweden, Norway, Austria and Finland also won their fight to ensure that EU membership would not weaken their tough environmental standards. By joining the single market, the four applicant countries are technically prohibited from preventing imports on health or environmental grounds, giving rise to the fear that the tough standards the four apply would be gradually abandoned.

Foreign ministers decided yesterday that the open market would not take effect for the first four years, after which the EU would review its own standards - the assumption being that they will have improved to Scando-Austrian levels in that time. The decision will affect chemicals used in wood preserver, cadmium in batteries and fertilisers, the sulphur in diesel and the benzene in fuel, as well as labelling requirements and waste management.

'We have taken a very important, if not decisive step forward in our negotiations. It is a major breakthrough,' Mr Dinkelspiel said. The Union has set a 1 March deadline for the enlargement negotiations to be completed to allow for ratification by 1995.