Commission comes to aid of Britain's booze tourists

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The Independent Online

Britain faces court action today from the European Commission in an increasingly bitter battle over claims that British customs officers are using draconian tactics against booze cruisers.

Britain faces court action today from the European Commission in an increasingly bitter battle over claims that British customs officers are using draconian tactics against booze cruisers.

Frits Bolkestein, the European commissioner for the internal market, who steps down at the end of the month, wants to take the UK to the European Court of Justice over the seizure of cars at British ports.

The clash is the latest in a series of high-octane disputes between Mr Bolkestein and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Although the Government says it has offered concessions verbally to the Commission, the Treasury minister John Healey wrote a letter last week saying it would take two weeks to put the detail on paper. By that time, Mr Bolkestein will have left the Commission.

One EU official said yesterday: "If the Treasury were to do everything we have asked them to do, all well and good. But how on earth can one believe them?" Prompted by complaints from British consumers, the row has rumbled on for three years. The Government argues that the launch of a full legal case - which the Commission will be asked to endorse today - has been rushed.

Cross-border shoppers are permitted to import into the UK cigarettes, wine, beer and spirits for their personal consumption. To help customs authorities differentiate between smugglers and normal shoppers, the Commission has issued guidelines on how much people can bring back: a maximum of 90 litres of wine, 110 litres of beer and 800 cigarettes.

The dispute between Mr Bolkestein and Mr Blair centres around those few shoppers who admit that they are carrying tobacco or alcohol back to the UK for sale to friends on a not-for-profit basis. Under the present rules, these travellers, who are breaking EU law, can be made to pay duty on the imported cigarettes and alcohol, have their goods confiscated and their car impounded.

British officials say such cases made up only 28 of 8,400 car seizures in 2002-03. In all, customs officers make 66,000 seizures of goods each year from a total of 14 million cross-channel passengers.

But the Commission believes that heavy-handed tactics against those who are known not to be professional smugglers are designed to deter cross-border shopping.

The Government says it has made a verbal promise to change practices by stopping the seizure of cars for first offences, and by allowing people to keep their tobacco and alcohol after the duty and a fine has been paid. The only exception would be in "aggravated circumstances", though this has not been defined.

One British official said: "We have made enormous strides towards the Commission. It is clear that the two sides are close to an agreement but there are still some technical issues to be resolved. We hope the Commission will not go down the path of a high-profile, expensive legal challenge that can only put off cross-Channel shoppers."

Neither side is pretending the case has been helped by the personalities involved. One source argued that "personal vanity" lay behind the clash. Mr Brown may calculate that he will get a more sympathetic hearing from the incoming Latvian commissioner, Ingrida Udre, who is due to take over the dossier as part of her responsibility for taxation issues. If the Commission goes to court today, and if the UK then produces satisfactory concessions, the case could be dropped.

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