Euro MPs have voted for an end to all controls on the amount of alcohol and tobacco brought into the UK.
The move has no legal force but is one more shot fired in the ongoing war between EU legislators, the UK drinks industry, and other groups with a vested interest in controlling cheap imports.
A majority of MEPs say HM Customs and Excise limits are hard to enforce, arbitrary, and should be scrapped.
Under EU legislation there is no limit to how much alcohol and tobacco can be taken across borders, as long as it is not being sold for profit.
EU guidelines advise on amounts ‘considered reasonable’. As interpreted by UK Customs this is about as much as will fill a large estate car – 90 litres of wine, 110 litres of beer, 10 of spirits, 20 of fortified wine, 800 cigarettes and so on.
Customs says there must be no commercial transaction of any sort. If there is any suspicion that friends are paying for all or part of the trip – for example in contributions for petrol – goods will be confiscated. It is this rule that the EU says leads to ‘disproportionate’ confiscations.
Customs has very wide-ranging powers. The burden of proof lies on the shopper who if challenged must prove the goods he is importing are not to be sold for profit. Goods and cars can be confiscated.
Conservative MEP John Purvis said honest shoppers were being criminalised. ‘The burden of proof should now move from the shopper to the customs officer – meaning that unless HM Customs and Excise can show that travellers are bringing in goods for commercial sale, travellers should be allowed to proceed unimpeded.’
British Labour MEPs support the current system, saying it protects the drinks industry from black market sales, and also helps prevent under-age drinking and smoking.
The British Retail Consortium says smuggling is costing the drinks industry some £1bn per year and any softening of UK Customs rules will only encourage criminals.
UK drinks body the Wine and Spirits Association says while it accepts Customs has been over-zealous, the main problem lies in the enormous difference between UK duty and that of mainland Europe, particularly France.
Written by Adam Lechmere