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Leading Article: Nothing to declare but their greed

AT YESTERDAY'S meeting of EU finance ministers, the representatives of four of our European partners tried, rather clumsily, to prevent the abolition of duty-free sales for travellers between European countries, due to happen on 1 July 1999. The finance ministers of Germany, France, the Irish Republic and Spain behaved like some obviously shifty travellers trying to smuggle a few extra bottles of booze through the "nothing to declare" channel. But their try-on was never going to succeed and Gordon Brown, chairing the meeting, was quite right to dismiss their special pleadings.

The duty-free lobby has made the most extreme predictions about the imminent loss of jobs, industries, even whole airports as a result of the change. The alarms are a little synthetic. It is not as if the proposal to abolish duty-free has come out of a clear blue sky. The original decision was taken as long ago as 1991. The delay in implementation until next year was specifically designed to allow those who were going to be adversely affected ample time to prepare for what was coming. It is hard to believe that the regional airports, distillers, retailers and the rest have not been doing some quiet, careful planning to minimise the impact of the removal of their market distortion.

But even if some of the grim predictions of economic disruption were correct it would still be right to make the change. To maintain a special regime of tax-free sales purely for travellers moving between EU countries cannot be justified in an era of free movement for trade, goods and people between 15 countries. Duty-free allowances have been an anachronism since the Single Market was established in 1992. But the intrepid bargain-hunter should remember that rates of duty will still vary from country to country, and opportunities to shop around for cheap beer or tobacco will remain. Most of all, those in the duty-free lobby should be assured that old habits die hard and there will always remain a constituency for whom no holiday is complete without some heavy shopping whilst in transit.