Britain and Spain face EU censure over 'booze-cruise' crackdown

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The Independent Online

The European Union has demanded answers from Britain and Spain to allegations that their customs officers are impeding the right of shoppers to take home alcohol and tobacco from other EU countries.

An EU spokesman, Jonathan Todd, said Brussels wanted to know whether Britain and Spain's customs tactics were in line with EU market rules which give European citizens the right to import as many goods as they like for personal use. "Whilst member states are perfectly justified in pursuing smuggling for commercial purposes of alcohol and tobacco, there is no excuse for measures which infringe upon the rights of people to buy and take home with them goods from other member states," Mr Todd said.

The European Commission began investigating British procedures two years ago, but officials say they are still not satisfied with the answers.

The EU is particularly concerned about the severity of sanctions imposed by British customs officers on citizens bringing large amounts of alcohol and tobacco into the UK. "Our concern is that the penalties in these cases, which include not only the payment of excise duties due and a fine, but also seizure of the goods and in some cases seizure of the person's car, may be disproportionate," Mr Todd said.

Taxes on alcohol products and cigarettes are much lower in France and Belgium and the British government is losing revenue because many Britons choose to shop on the Continent to avoid the high taxes on cigarettes and alcohol at home.

Mr Todd said the Commission had also received complaints from holidaymakers that customs officials in Spain ­ where excise duties are also lower than in the the UK ­ were routinely confiscating cigarettes when they left for home. He said Spanish authorities considered the goods were for commercial use "simply on the basis of their quantity".

The Commission is collecting information before deciding whether to launch infringement procedures, which could result in fines.

The British and Spanish authorities say their actions are justified to crack down on smugglers who import goods for commercial resale. The governments have two months to reply to the EU request. (AP)