BUSINESSES and MPs have formed a united front against the abolition of duty free shopping and the loss of 200 Stansted Airport jobs.

Airport retailers, MPs and local businesses joined forces at the Hilton National Hotel yesterday (Tuesday) to forge ahead with their campaign against the proposed axing of the popular travel perk by July 1999.

The crunch meeting coincided with a meeting of European Community finance ministers in Brussels where France and Germany were due to ask for duty free to be placed back on the agenda.

Stansted Airport's managing director John Stent said the abolition would have a disastrous effect on Stansted.

"Duty free provides a vital source of revenue for Stansted and the local economy. Its removal would lead to increases in travel costs for passengers.

"To maintain our investment programme we would have no choice but to increase airport charges. With airlines losing on board duty free as well, some routes could become unprofitable.

"This is bad news for staff, the public and the local economy. It's time for a rethink."

Duty Free Confederation spokesman Richard Stocks said: "Now that Germany and France have opposed the initiative it will encourage other member states -- including the UK -- to follow."

France and Germany's appeal comes after the European Commission proposed an alternative to duty free -- travellers would pay duty on goods according to the country they are travelling in at time of purchase.

For instance, if you were travelling on a plane from Stansted to Paris, you would pay duty at British rates until reaching France's airspace, when the rate would alter. Longer haul flights could see many tax changes en route.

Mr Stocks said: "This would result in chaos for travellers and operators. It would also cause major problems of enforcement."

He said the plans had been cobbled together by the commission in October after realising it had just 18 months to come up with an alternative.

Mr Stocks said that in 1991 the European Community had decided to abolish duty free as it believed that by 1999, Europe would enjoy tax harmony through the Single European Currency.

But he added: "Abolishing duty free would be fine if this was the case, but we're a long way from that ever happening."

The Duty Free Confederation wants the government to push for the retention of duty free until a workable alternative is developed. Passengers can add clout to its campaign by lobbying MPs and MEPs and filling in forms at the airport.I

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