Leading Article: Drink in the single market

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The Independent Online
CONTINENTAL holidays will take on a new character with the advent of the single market on 1 January. That day sees the removal of virtually all limits on the importation of wine bought in shops within member states - providing it is for personal consumption rather than onward sale. It is not hard to imagine enthusiasts devoting much of their trip to hunting down bargains in French, Italian, Spanish or German shops and supermarkets. Sales of estate cars may benefit as the capacity and springs of smaller vehicles are tested by the precious freight.

The present 'duty paid' allowance is a niggardly five litres of wine and one and a half litres of spirits. In the new dispensation there are 'guide levels' of 10 litres of spirits, 90 litres of wine and 110 of beer. But those are not firm limits: as Customs and Excise confirmed in a new leaflet yesterday, more can be imported, provided travellers can convince officials that it is all for personal use. Perhaps a port-coloured face or sagging drinker's belly will be taken as evidence of good faith; and no doubt there will be many earnest assurances that large family birthday parties are planned, or that the stuff is being laid down for several years' consumption.

The change promises to create new demands and topics of conversation. Guidebooks will be written explaining where to buy what at the best price across the Channel. Soon everyone will know that a standard bottle of blended Scotch whisky costs less than pounds 7 in Italy and pounds 8.40 in France, against pounds 10.80 in this country (duty-free allowances will survive within the European Community until 1999). Debate will rage around dining tables about whether it is better value to buy cheap plonk in continental supermarkets, or, say, wines at pounds 4, in the hope of getting something that would cost around pounds 6.50 here.

Naturally, British producers of spirits will not suffer: it is their whisky, gin or vodka that Britons are likely to buy more cheaply in French or Italian supermarkets. But retailers of wine, spirits and beer in this country certainly will. They may be expected to press all the harder for the harmonisation of duty levels across the EC: only minimum levels have so far been agreed.

A likely and desirable effect of the change is that duty-free purchases will seem increasingly marginal. With luck, therefore, less space on Channel ferries will be devoted to those tacky duty-free markets, from which Britons emerge staggering under boxes of cheap beer and cartons of cigarettes. But those who take to buying their wine in French supermarkets should beware: unlike their British equivalents, those chains of behemoths buy purely on price, and are largely indifferent to the quality of the wines they sell. One of the chief by-products of the new era could be searing hangovers from too much vin decidedly ordinaire.