Cameron Avoids Tampon-Tax Rebellion, Taking U.K. Agenda to EU

  • U.K. Euro-skeptics form alliance with women's rights activists
  • Unpopular tax on sanitary products raises $22 million a year

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron made progress in heading off a rebellion by his lawmakers on Thursday evening as he secured backing from other European Union leaders to exempt tampons from a sales tax.

The European Commission will publish a proposal that will give member states more flexibility to reduce tax rates and provide the option of a zero rate for sanitary products, according to conclusions from a meeting of EU leaders on Thursday posted on the European Council’s website.

“It takes us a step closer to ending the tampon tax,” Cameron’s spokeswoman Helen Bower said, adding that there still needed to be formal agreement among the leaders.

The 5 percent tax charged on women’s sanitary products, dubbed the “tampon tax,” has a political significance out of all proportion with the 15 million pounds ($22 million) it raises each year. Activists say it’s an example of discrimination against women; Euro-skeptics point out that the government cannot abolish it because the list of products that can be zero-rated for value-added tax is set by the EU.

‘More Progress’

The issue has been used by groups campaigning for Britain to leave the EU in a referendum on June 23 as a symbol of the way the block erodes national sovereignty. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said he was unable to remove the tax under EU rules and at 5 percent had reduced it as far as he could.

Osborne, who announced his budget to Parliament on Wednesday, told the BBC that he hoped for agreement to abolish the tax “in the next few days.”

“I perfectly understand people’s anger,” Osborne said. “I said we would get agreement that we would reduce this rate to zero and I think we are on the verge of getting that agreement.”

An amendment to the main budget resolution calling for the abolition of the tax, proposed by Labour lawmaker Paula Sherriff, has been supported by a Tory Euro-skeptic, Anne-Marie Trevelyan.

Value-Added Tax

“The people we elect should be responsible for setting the taxes in this country,” Trevelyan said in a statement. “Our chancellor is unable to take this decision that will benefit women because VAT is controlled by the EU.”

It’s not the only issue the Euro-skeptics are highlighting. They also plan to submit amendments protesting that EU rules prevent the government from lowering VAT on energy-saving products, including insulation and solar panels.

The tampon amendment was put forward for discussion and a possible vote on Tuesday.

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