Tony Blair joined French and German leaders by demanding a rethink at the EU summit in Cologne, just four weeks before duty-free shopping is due to be abolished.
As Mr Blair made his appeal over a working dinner last night, British officials were not optimistic that the EU would reverse its 1991 decision. "We have not given up hope but the omens are not good," said one British source.
Overturning the move would be a populist decision ahead of next week's European Parliament elections. However, this would require unanimity among all 15 EU states. Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland insist the change must go ahead to help the EU complete its internal market. The European Commission is also strongly opposed to a U-turn. "It must and will go ahead," said one Commission official.
Mr Blair is worried that up to 30,000 British jobs could be at risk, including almost 11,000 in ferry companies and inshore jobs around ports. "We know that other countries feel the same as us," said Mr Blair's spokesman. "We just have to keep plugging away at it. It was a decision taken by the last government. We have tried manfully to reverse it but it is very difficult."