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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 November 2006, 15:27 GMT
EU alcohol ruling cheers traders
Booze cruise views

Retailers have expressed relief at a European court ruling against allowing consumers to buy drinks and cigarettes online at lower duties from abroad.

The decision means shoppers buying cheaper goods abroad will still have to accompany the goods back themselves.

Shopkeepers said a ruling against them, which may have led to an internet bargain hunt, would have hit them hard.

The ruling means the "booze cruise" to Europe is no longer under threat and the Treasury will save millions.

The UK already loses duty of more than 1bn per year owing to such trips.

And it would have lost a lot more if the ruling had gone the other way and more shoppers had turned to buying low-duty goods online.

Chart showing price of cigarettes

A Treasury spokesman said the government welcomed the ruling and while it supported the freedoms of the EU single market, it wanted to eliminate "abuse" of those rights.

The decision will disappoint shoppers hoping to stock up from home on alcohol and cigarettes for Christmas, but it has cheered retailers.

Ken Patel, national spokesman for Retailers Against Smuggling, and a Leicester retailer, said it was a critical decision for corner shops because tobacco sales are a lifeline.

"To have lost these valuable sales plus the add-on purchases a shopper often makes at the same time - like a daily paper or a pint of milk - would have been unsustainable for many retailers," he said.

The Wine and Spirit Trade Association also said it was pleased.

So much for a free and open market with no borders
Stuart Paterson, Dunstable

Judges at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that "only products acquired and transported personally by private individuals are exempt from excise duty in the member state of importation".

And in response, the head of the European Commission in the UK, Reijo Kemppinen, said: "This is a retrograde step for the European citizen's freedom to shop."

Armchair shopping

The case was brought by a Dutch wine club which objected to being charged duty on a lorry-load of wine delivered from France.

Composed of senior judges from the 25 EU states
Rules on disputes over EU treaties and other EU law
Clarifies points of European law
Hears actions brought by individuals seeking damages from EU institutions
Based in Luxembourg

The UK had stood to lose more than most countries by a change in the law, whereas a country such as France would have benefited from the extra business.

But this may be a short-term reprieve for the UK Treasury because planned draft legislation could reverse this decision in the future.

Deborah Arnott, director of the anti-smoking charity ASH, said a change in the law would have been "disastrous" for the health of Britons.

Labour MEP Arlene McCarthy said: "Any other ruling would have caused anarchy and chaos, as the UK market would have been flooded by cheap booze and cigarettes."

A P&O Ferries spokeswoman said the company had been ready to adapt its business to a change in the law, but would now carry on as normal.

Car boot stocked with alcohol
Shoppers in Calais said the ruling was "sensible"

Colin Poole, who made the trip from Northamptonshire to shop in Calais, told BBC News he thought the ruling was sensible, given the large amounts of alcohol consumed in the UK.

"Responsible people come over three times a year. We top up and can make enough savings to pay for the trip and pay for a meal. For us it's a good day out."

But Conservative MEP Richard Ashworth, who campaigns for the rights of cross-channel shoppers, said the EU should go further and relax the limits on how much they can bring back to the UK tax-free.

Duty on a bottle of wine varies from nothing in 13 EU countries, to 2.1 euros per 75cl in Ireland.

What the ruling means for consumers

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