* Britain worries transaction tax will hit City of London
* European court throws out Britain's bid to divert tax
* Defeat is setback for UK in tussle with Brussels
(Adds background, detail, reaction from UK government)
By John O'Donnell and Huw Jones
BRUSSELS/LONDON, April 30 Britain's legal
challenge to a financial transactions tax was rejected by
Europe's highest court, dealing another blow to attempts to
shield London's financial centre from the influence of Brussels.
Wednesday's ruling throws out the legal action intended to
prevent a group of 11 countries, including Germany and France,
from introducing a trading tax, and was seized on by critics as
evidence of the British government's impotence in fighting its
corner in Europe.
Britain, where financial services account for a tenth of the
economy, making the sector one of the country's biggest tax
generators, had argued that trading in London would be affected,
even though it would be outside the zone of a tax that is anyway
likely to be scaled back.
The tax, intended as a way of clawing back some of the
taxpayer cash paid to shore up banks in the 2008-2009 financial
crisis, would consist of a small charge on each stock, bond and
derivative trade carried out in the 11 countries.
But the court noted much of how the scheme will work
remained to be decided and Britain had jumped the gun in
challenging it now.
The British government said it could still take fresh legal
action and pledged to fight for its interests in the face of
ever-closer integration among countries using the euro.
But the defeat is symbolically significant, coming months
after the same court dismissed Britain's bid to overturn a law
banning short-selling of shares - where investors gamble on a
share price decline by borrowing shares, which they sell in the
hope of being able to buy them back at a lower level.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to
renegotiate ties with the EU and hold a referendum on Britain's
membership if his Conservatives win a general election next
"This ... judgement shows that the UK cannot act to protect
the UK's biggest interest," said Nigel Farage, leader of the
eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party.
"It shows Cameron's argument that the UK government can
negotiate a better deal for British business from within the EU
as a fraud and a farce."
The ruling could also give Farage's party ammunition in its
anti-EU campaign for elections to the European Parliament next
month, in which opinion polls indicate it could come second to
the main opposition party Labour or even first.
The legal action is one of four over the past two years, in
which Britain has sought to push back against new European rules
or schemes that would hit its financial centre of the City of
London. The UK also wants to change EU rules to curb banker
Pursuing such cases has antagonised some, leading to
criticism of Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George
"The Chancellor should never have taken this case and used
taxpayers' money to defend City fat cats," said Frances O'Grady,
general secretary of Britain's Trades Union Congress.
"It's time the financial sector paid its fair share of the
costs of the economic crisis they helped cause."
Germany and France, among the 11 countries backing a tax,
have pledged to reach a broad deal in time for the European
Parliament elections, but there are splits over the exact shape
of the levy that will likely lead to its being scaled back.
Ultimately, however, the unsteady coalition behind the tax
may play more to Britain's advantage than any legal challenge.
The reservations of some countries are set to lead to a dramatic
paring back of the scheme.
In the run up to European elections, however, with memories
still fresh of the financial crisis that plunged the region into
an economic slump, few want to abandon the scheme.
Ambassadors for EU states meet in Brussels on Wednesday to
examine progress. A paper prepared by the country diplomats who
will host the discussion, however, said there was still
disagreement about which trading should be taxed.
One option, said the paper, is a gradual rolling out of the
levy to gauge its economic impact before broadening its scope.
Some experts said Britain may have more success if it
challenges the tax later.
"Once the tax has been worked through, then that is when the
UK needs to step in," said Chas Roy-Chowdhury, head of tax at
ACCA, an international accounting body.
Government lawyers believe that despite the defeat, the case
lays down a legal marker that will enable them to launch further
challenges to the project.
The tax has been designed to reach beyond the boundaries of
the 11 countries in order to stop banks moving trade deals to
London, for example, to avoid the levy.
"This is a shot across the bows as the 11 now know that the
UK is watching carefully," said Alexandria Carr, a financial
services lawyer at Mayer Brown.
(Additional reporting by William Schomberg in London; Editing
by Larry King and David Holmes)