Gas revolt spreads in Europe

Yesterday, fuel-price protests erupted in Britain, Belgium, Germany, and Spain.

Europe's citizens often wonder just what the much-vaunted unity of their continent really means. Their political masters often preach to them about the European Union, its single market, its single currency, its common values. But what do they look like in practice?

They are currently getting a dramatic illustration, as British and Belgian farmers and truck owners follow the example of their French counterparts last week, and blockade gas refineries in protest of rocketing prices. Thousands of gas stations across both countries have closed.

"We've all heard European leaders talk about the need for convergence - learning from each others' experience, exchanging best practice," says Charles Grant, head of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank.

"Now we are seeing it move to civil society. The British farmers saw how the French got their way," he says.

Certainly, other European nations have learned their French lesson fast. Last week, Paris cut fuel taxes for truck owners, farmers and taxi drivers after they nearly paralyzed France by blockading refineries and fuel storage facilities.

"The French forced their government to bring down prices. [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair has to do the same. We will not give in," said Derek Mead, national convener of the Farmers for Action movement in Britain, which is leading the blockades.

But other European governments are choosing their own routes, and not necessarily following French Premier Lionel Jospin's example of making concessions. "We cannot, and we will not alter policy on petrol through blockades and pickets," Mr. Blair said Monday. "That is not the way to make policy in Britain, and as far as I am concerned it never will be."

Blair later called the queen to ask for emergency powers to use police and army units to break up the demonstrations and was granted such authority.

This stance, which The Times dubbed "Churchillian," is likely to hold, suggests Mr. Grant, an adviser of Blair's. "He will risk the short-term unpopularity of being over-tough for the sake of avoiding a long-term image as a weak leader."

The Belgian government is also facing down the drivers who blocked the center of Brussels. "I will not give in to an ultimatum from any section of the transport lobby," Belgian transport minister Isabelle Durant said on radio yesterday. But the minister was negotiating a package of fiscal and social measures with truckers' leaders that she said she hoped would end the crisis.

Irish officials were also holding talks with truck owners in Dublin, in the hope of staving off similar protests threatened for Friday, while Spanish farmers said they would decide Thursday how to react to their government's refusal to cut fuel taxes.

In The Netherlands, truckers staged wildcat blockades in the roadways around Amsterdam and Rotterdam, but the Dutch government has so far resisted calls to cut taxes on diesel. And German officials say they won't give in to the demands of truckers in their country.

In Brussels, at the headquarters of the European Union, monetary affairs spokesman, Gerassimos Thomas, insisted that the price increases were the fault of high oil prices, which have risen from $10 a barrel to $35 a barrel over the past 18 months - with a six percent increase from just Sunday to Tuesday.

"There will be no change in European governments' policy on oil taxation for economic and environmental reasons," he stressed. Until the current wave of protests, all European governments had been in the process of hiking taxes on diesel fuel in a bid to push more freight onto the railroads, so as to reduce pollution levels.

As Europeans make more and more contacts with each other across crumbling national borders, news travels fast. Thousands of British holidaymakers, for example, experienced the French protests firsthand, when they found themselves unable to get home across the English Channel because French fishermen were blockading all the ports. Scenes of roadblocks in France, and of truck drivers parading at a snail's pace down highways were a staple of British television news.

And national differences, while remaining a matter of national pride to many, do seem to be eroding. The British have always regarded themselves as phlegmatic and law-abiding, looking somewhat askance at their truculent neighbors across the Channel. Taking to the streets in protest is referred to as "the French way" of doing things, but increasingly it appears to be the British way too.

Certainly the British have had the most to put up with, paying the highest prices in Europe for gasoline and diesel. Unleaded gasoline costs about $1.21 a liter, and taxes make up 76 percent of that sum.

British motor fuel prices have risen by 33 percent over the past three years, mainly because of tax increases, say protest leaders, who are demanding that the government cut those duties.

Blair cancelled all other business yesterday as he cut short a visit to northern England to cope with the spreading crisis. Station owners said that as of noon yesterday, about half of Britain's 13,000 filling stations were now dry. Wales has no fuel at all, and only a few outlets are still functioning in major cities such as Birmingham and Manchester.

The protests began last week, when a hastily formed group calling itself Farmers for Action, claiming more than 5,000 members, began organizing demonstrations against rising fuel prices. They were joined by truck owners and taxi drivers who created a loose network of protest across the country, coordinating their actions by mobile phone.

"The French have shown us the way" said Brynle Williams, a spokesman for the protesters. "Tony Blair has grossly underestimated the will of the country."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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