STOCKHOLM-HELSINKI FERRY - The ferry has not even left port yet, and a small crowd of passengers is already queuing for the duty-free shop. The Stockholm-Helsinki crossing may be an overnight trip, but there's no time to lose: everyone is here to buy and indulge in drinking cheap alcohol. Once the ferry departs, one can detect the movement by the sudden clinking of bottles, and the rush is on. Passengers load their trollies full with wine, beer, spirits, cigarettes, perfume and candy.
"You would think these people came from a country where there's a shortage of goods," said Anna, a civil servant from Stockholm.
In reality, it is the high taxes in the Nordic countries, in particular on alcohols, that make ferry crossings a popular pastime for Finns and Swedes.
By making a quick detour to Finland's autonomous Aaland Islands, which are exempt from EU trade agreements, the ferries can continue to offer duty-free goods on board. Vodka on board costs only two-thirds of what it costs on the mainland.
A stroll through the ferry's corridors serves up some memorable sights. One passenger struggles to close the door of his cabin, barely squeezing in his trolley stocked to the rim with booze. Meanwhile, an elegant woman loaded down with shopping bags discreetly steps over an intoxicated man who has passed out sprawled on the floor.
But the one thing almost everyone on board has in common is the hunt for tax-free bargains, only a small minority are actually here for the transport from one capital to another.
The Finnish beer Legenda, which has a 6 percent alcohol content, proves to be a popular item at the ship's tax-free shop.
"At the supermarket near my home I can only buy light beer, and it's very expensive. So I'm taking advantage here," said Markus, a young Swede stocking up on canned beer "for the next football matches."
The same flurry of activity is evident at the perfume shop, where women are spraying themselves with the latest designer scents and experimenting with luxury cosmetics.
Once the shopping is done, it is after all the main goal of this voyage: passengers find ways to kill time, and for most of them, this means heavy drinking. Everywhere on the boat, signs are posted informing passengers that it is forbidden to consume what they have just bought. The signs seem however to go unnoticed, judging from the number of empty bottles littering the corridors.
And the numerous bars on board are packed and doing a booming business, with booze costing half of what it costs back home.
"We came to discuss union issues," said a smiling Matti, a Finn who together with his colleagues from the STTK union is taking part in a conference on board. Their table is covered with empty glasses.
With the price of a ferry ticket costing less than a simple meal for two, these crossings are a popular choice for company conferences, stag and bachelorette parties.
Like most passengers, Matti is along only for the ride - and the booze. "I didn't get off the boat in Stockholm this morning," he admits with a slight blush rising to his cheeks.
Matti is not an exception. There is plenty to do on board, including movie theatres, restaurants, karaoke bars and shopping. Come nighttime, the nightclubs and discos fill up.
But the days could be numbered for this popular pastime. The Baltic cruises, which earn 40 percent of their turnover from duty-free shops, are threatened by planned tax cuts on alcohol in Finland and possibly in Sweden, stripping them of their appeal.
Brussels: red flags before May accession to EU
"All the necessary legislation changes to eliminate the problems mentioned in the report, such as employment contracts and gender equality and others are being prepared," he added.
All accession countries must act effectively over the next six months to ensure that the remaining requirements are met. If they fail to do so, they will face harsh consequences.
"The risk is that the infringement procedures in the accession treaty will be used. There are three conditions in the treaty - one about general clearance of guidelines, a second about justice and home affairs, meaning the borders, and a third about the internal market," explained Graham. "But according to the accession treaty, the commission can take immediate measures against an accession state in case of infringement, which means there are stricter controls."
All stressed that accession countries would see reduced EU financial support if their obligations go unmet. Commission chief Romano Prodi hinted that failure to meet all requirements would hit accession countries where it hurt most: in the pocketbook.
"The 10 governments are perfectly aware that any failings would deprive them of the benefits of financial transfers and improved market access," Prodi told the European Parliament.
Prodi expressed confidence that expansion will go ahead as planned on May 1 next year.