BRITAIN: Plea over excise duties.
CHANCELLOR Gordon Brown was urged last night to bring down excise duties after European judges blocked online shoppers buying cut-price cigarettes and alcohol anywhere in Europe.
High British duty rates sparked the "booze cruise" generation, crossing the Channel to buy cheaper goods, depriving the Treasury of about pounds 1bn a year in revenue.
But yesterday the European Court of Justice saved the Chancellor a much bigger financial headache by declaring that online or mail order shoppers still have to pay UK taxes on drink and cigarettes imported from elsewhere in the EU.
Small retailers breathed easier too, as the door closed on the prospect of an exodus of customers who would have been able to pick up alcohol and cigarette bargains in low-tax EU countries without leaving their armchairs.
The ruling means no change: only Britons bringing in personal consignments themselves avoid paying UK duty, mostly the "booze-cruisers".
Other shoppers relying on delivery from abroad by someone else will continue to pay the Chancellor's levy on import.
A Government official said the verdict was "a victory for common sense", a view shared by retailers.
But even they said it was time to rethink high British duties, and create a "level playing field" in excise duties to avoid the need to shop elsewhere.
The judgment came in a test case brought by a Dutch group of wine importers fed up with paying Dutch excise duties on French wines delivered to their homes, having already paid the lower French duties on it.
They wanted the judges to say EU rules stating that goods must be "transported personally" should taken to allow private citizens visiting other parts of the EU to arrange transport of low-tax purchases without necessarily accompanying the consignments personally.
The European Commission backed the case in the interest of further opening up the single European market.
But the ruling made clear that "personally" means "personally". Any other form of purchase of alcohol and cigarettes in another EU country will trigger domestic duties on import.
The head of the Commission's London Office, Reijo Kempinnen, said: "This is a retrograde step for the European citizen's freedom to shop".
But the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers joined the Chancellor in toasting "a victory for common sense".
ALMR chief executive Nick Bish went on: "We already have a million pints of beer crossing the channel each day because of the duty differential between Britain and France - that is a million lost sales a day for British pubs and bars. A different ruling today would have sparked an internet bargain hunt that would have hit thousands of pubs and bars hard in the run up to Christmas."
British shopper David Thomas from Kent fills his trolley with cheap wine and beer at Eastenders in Calais, France