Leading Article: All tied up in brown tape

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RECEIVED wisdom has it that the European Commission, chastened by the popular backlash against centralisation, is being more circumspect in the new regulations it proposes to force on the continent's hapless citizens. Odd, therefore, that one of the first items on the commission's agenda when it returns from holiday will be a plan to impose new taxes on audio and video tapes and players.

The proposal is evidence of the influence of the European film and music industries, which have long complained that those who make tapes at home are dishonestly depriving them of royalties. In recent years, nine out of the European Union's 12 nations have succumbed to these complaints and imposed levies on tapes, machines or both. Only Britain, Ireland and Luxembourg stand against the tide; but under the new proposal, consumers all over the EU will have to pay a standard levy - ranging from 16.5p for a 90-minute audio tape to nearly pounds 8 for a VCR.

The debate over such levies is an old one. Opponents say that they unfairly hit those who use tapes only for recordings allowed under the law. Supporters admit that levies bring no more than rough justice - but they insist that this is a lesser evil than depriving artists and record companies of their due.

Britain's parliament has already rejected the case for a levy. The argument from Brussels is that without a single rule for the entire EU, the countries that currently operate levies will find them unworkable because consumers will buy their tapes and machines elsewhere.

This argument for consistency across Europe has some force - though it is striking to note that the EU has not applied the same logic to the more important issue of value-added taxes. Its force is weakened, though, by flaws in the proposal itself.

In a misguided appeal to the principle of subsidiarity, the plan allows each country to decide what to do with the money raised. France, for instance, withholds half its existing levy from copyright holders, adding it instead to a general cultural subsidy fund. This cannot make sense: if the commission is to impose a levy across the EU, the money should go only to those who lose from home taping. If the levy is just a tax in disguise, it should be left up to member states to decide whether to impose it.

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