Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Cheap booze or sovereignty

It looks like another confrontation between the UK government and the EU commission is on the cards – this one about the so-called "booze cruisers" and the UK’s reluctance to allow trippers to bring in unrestricted quantities of cheaper beer and baccy from abroad.

The commission is questioning the "disproportionate penalties", including goods and car seizures, that UK custom officials have applied to people returning home with large amounts of drink and tobacco. According to commission spokesman Jonathan Todd, the commission is going to decide today whether to refer the UK to the ECJ.

At the heart of the dispute is the "advice" from HM Customs that quantities brought in should be limited to a maximum of 90 litres of wine, 110 litres of beer and 800 cigarettes. The commission considers that these guidelines are indicative and should not be taken as a rigid rule by customs officials.

This is a tricky one for the Eurosceptic fraternity, as many benefit from being able to buy more cheaply abroad. But the issue is about sovereignty. The level of tax imposed on luxury goods like alcohol and tobacco is a sovereign decision of the nation state and the EU is effectively undermining the autonomy of the state by allowing citizens to circumvent the tax.

The loss to the Exchequer is variously estimated to be about £3 billion a year, which is no small sum, and what is lost in one sector must be recovered elsewhere. The EU is thus also influencing tax rates in other areas. Altogether, therefore, it is a choice between cheap booze or sovereignty – not a difficult choice: don’t you dare say "cheap booze".

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