By David Fairlamb
It's early in the morning on a sunny March Saturday when a coach carrying 40 raucous English men and women pulls into the car park of Boozers Cash & Carry, one of the 40 or so alcohol-stocked supermarkets found all around Calais. The passengers are tired after traveling through the night from Peterlee, a depressed town in northeast England, to this French port. But they're in a festive mood. For the next hour, they'll do something worth all the discomfort of the 10-hour trip: buy up crate after crate of cheap wine and beer, load it on the coach, and head home. "They never want to see the countryside or even look around the town," says driver Chandra Khan. "They're only here for the booze."
To be sure, some of the 10 million Britons a year who pass through Calais on their way to the Channel Tunnel or the car ferry to Dover do take time to visit, say, the town's historic watchtower. But snapping up as much cheap alcohol as possible is nearly always the top priority when they stop off in the town. That's because, while value-added taxes are comparable (17.5% in Britain, 19.6% in France), Britain slaps much heavier excise duties on booze than France does--48 cents per average pint of beer in England, vs. 6 cents in France. The Brits also tack a $1.60 levy on each bottle of wine, which adds to the charms of Calais. "You would be daft not to buy as much as you can," says Ada Battersby, a pensioner from South London who stocks up in Calais once a month. The money she saves more than pays for her coach fare. "And I make a few quid selling bottles to my neighbors," she adds. Like many fellow travelers, Battersby buys a bottle or two of wine to drink on the coach going home. Her favorites? "The ones that come in screw tops," she says. "It doesn't look very ladylike using a corkscrew on the bus."
So cheap is the booze that some Britons lose all sense of decorum when they arrive in Calais. Tempers flare, and bottles get smashed as shoppers--some more than a little inebriated--scramble down supermarket aisles to seize the best bargains. It's not unusual to see one person pushing two carts packed to overflowing with bottles and cans. Babies are whisked out of prams and carried so the prams can be filled with cases. Cars and coaches are so weighed down when they leave Calais that occasionally their axles break. "That hill outside the ferry terminal in Dover can be a real killer," says Dai Williams, over for the day from Tredegar in South Wales. "Last Christmas, we bought so much Stella [Artois, a leading Belgian beer] that I thought our car would never make it."
"DOG'S BOLLOCKS." This time, Williams has come with a van to stock up for his daughter's wedding. There'll be nearly 100 guests. "So we're talking at least 80 bottles of wine, 400 or 500 cans of Stella, and a dozen bottles of spirits," he says. "That would set me back more than [$2,000] in Wales. Here it'll cost no more than [$500]." In fact, Williams could get it even cheaper if he went for the supermarkets' own labels. A bottle of Frog's Piss, a white wine produced especially for the British by Boozers, goes for less than $1.50. Just down the road at EastEnders, a vast alcohol emporium named after the popular British soap opera, bottles of the house beer--enticingly named Dog's Bollocks--cost less than 40 cents each.
Just about every Brit likes to buy at least some Stella Artois when he or she is in Calais. That's partly because it's a tasty brew but mainly because the savings on it are so huge. It costs $13 to $16 for 24 cans of Stella in mainstream Calais stores, compared with $40 in a London supermarket. Indeed, shoppers consider the price of Stella--always displayed in pounds, as are nearly all the prices in Calais beer outlets--a benchmark. "A weird sort of Stella standard operates in Calais," says Wayne Elliott, who stops at EastEnders once a fortnight with a coachload of vacationers heading back to the Midlands from Spain. "If Stella is cheap, the punters assume everything else is."
It may seem a tad tawdry to the uninitiated. And the good burghers of Calais often do complain that marauding British shoppers lower the tone of their town. Still, they bring in billions of francs a year and are a mainstay of the local economy. So their presence is tolerated, if not warmly welcomed.
But this is the happy face of the cross-Channel alcohol trade. In some of the back streets of Calais, a darker commerce flourishes. Vans drive up to seemingly shuttered factories in the dead of night to be loaded to bursting by forklifts. Here, Stella can be as cheap as $8 for a 24-bottle case. But it's never advertised because the last thing these outlets want is regular shoppers. In fact, unscheduled visitors are often chased away by fierce dogs--as happened to this correspondent when he went to see why Stella could be had for only $8.50 a case down one shadowy lane. "To sell Stella at that price, you have to be highly illegal," says the manager of a reputable supermarket. "At the very least, you've got to be avoiding French VAT [value-added tax]." That's exactly what many of these illicit operations are doing. As soon as tax officials discover they exist, they close shop and move elsewhere.
BLACK MARKET. But it's British tax collectors who really lose out. According to Britain's Brewers & Licensed Retailers Assn., many steady customers of these fly-by-night suppliers are members of criminal gangs, usually based in London's East End, who run huge volumes of wine and beer back to Britain for resale. European Union regulations allow individuals to take as much alcohol as they want across national borders if it's for their personal use. But reselling it when they get back home is strictly against the law. The BLRA reckons that professional criminals account for 75% of the 550 million bottles of beer bought by Britons in Calais every year.
Altogether, British customs officials estimate that up to 25% of all beer and wine sold in the southeast of England is bought in and around Calais, shipped across the Channel, and resold. In some parts of the country, the proportion is even higher. It all costs the Treasury around $1 billion a year in lost VAT and alcohol duties. It also hurts supermarkets and liquor stores. "Some [liquor stores] have been forced to close, especially in the Southeast," says Tim Hampson, who runs a beer-trade consultancy called Informed Leisure. "But the ironic thing is, you'll find [liquor store] staff on the train heading to Calais for a cheap drink. They still save money, even when [staff discounts] are taken into account."
In theory, the trade should be easy to curb. After all, 95% of the unlawful goods are brought into England through the Channel Tunnel exit at Folkestone or via the ferry terminal in Dover. But with upward of 350 vans passing each day, it's impossible for customs officials to check them all. And the drivers of the ones they do stop simply need to prove that the booze is for a special celebration, and odds are they'll be allowed through. One certain way to stamp out the traffic, of course, is to reduce British alcohol taxes to the French level. Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has taken a few small steps in that direction. But the gap is still vast, and Brown shows no sign of wanting to close it. "We lose a lot from Calais, but we still make a lot of money from alcohol as a whole," says a Customs & Excise official. Until Brown or his successors change their tune, Calais--a town whose loss to the French so distressed Mary Tudor that she predicted its name would be found engraved on her heart after death--for most British folk will mean cheap booze and little else.
Fairlamb, who covers European economics from Frankfurt, has stocked up in Calais
Edited by George Foy