Judges block cheap online booze

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European judges today rejected a legal bid to allow online shoppers to buy cut-price cigarettes and alcohol anywhere in Europe.

The decision is a blow to consumers hoping for a pre-Christmas bonanza.

But it is good news for Chancellor Gordon Brown, who had been facing a multi-billion-pound-a-year hole in revenue from domestic excise duty if the decision had gone the other way.

The European Court of Justice judges ruled that "only products acquired and transported personally by private individuals are exempt from excise duty in the member state of importation".

This means that Britons who want to take advantage of cheaper alcohol prices on the continent will still have to travel there on so-called booze cruises.

The judges made clear that alcohol and cigarettes being brought home for consumption from other EU countries can only be exempt from domestic excise duties if those goods are intended for the personal use of the private individuals who have transported the goods themselves.

"Products which are not held for private purposes must necessarily be regarded as being held for commercial purposes for the application of the Directive on excise duty," said the ruling.

Furthermore, the products in question must be transported personally by the private individual who purchased them. The judgment went on: "Were this not so, the effect, for the competent authorities of the Member States, would be an increased risk of fraud as the transport of products covered by the exemption requires no documentation."

The case was brought by a group of Dutch wine buffs who regularly sent one of their group to France to buy low-rate French wines on behalf of all of them. They went to court complaining that they paid duty in France and then more duty for importation into their own country.

But the judges said today that even that private arrangement did not qualify to dodge domestic tax: "The Directive requires that those products be intended for the personal use of the private individual who has acquired them and that it therefore excludes products acquired by a private individual for the use of other private individuals."