World

Pumped on Anger

The public cheers as truckers across Europe snarl traffic to protest the rising cost of fuel

Barry Came September 25 2000
World

Pumped on Anger

The public cheers as truckers across Europe snarl traffic to protest the rising cost of fuel

Barry Came September 25 2000

Pumped on Anger

World

The public cheers as truckers across Europe snarl traffic to protest the rising cost of fuel

By Barry Came in London

Trafalgar Square is the kind of place where tempers fray easily, especially during rush hour. Traffic chaos is endemic in the broad plaza in the bustling heart of London, presided over by Lord Nelson atop his towering column. But when a band of British truckers brought a wildcat protest over fuel prices to the busy square last week, the resulting gridlock provoked few angry outbursts. Office workers leaned from windows, saluting the truck drivers with thumbs-up signals of support. Motorists hopelessly trapped among the huge trucks beeped their horns in smiling sympathy. Even the harried police seemed tolerant. “We know were treading a fine line of public support here,” said Steve Kelly, spokesman for the truckers, as he surveyed the scene. “It’s not a good thing were doing today and were not proud of it. But it’s an act of desperation. Something has to be done.”

What Kelly and his fellow truckers wanted was government action to reduce the cost of fuel in Britain, where skyrocketing global oil prices and a local 76-per-cent tax rate mean that filling the tank of one of the wheeled behemoths parked under Nelson’s steely gaze can run to 200 pounds sterling—roughly $400. In pursuit of their goal, British truckers, supported by an ad hoc coalition of farmers, fishermen and taxi drivers, came close to paralyzing Britain’s transportation system last week. For seven days they blockaded roads, refineries, seaports and fuel depots, provoking a national crisis that saw the pumps at nearly all of the country’s 12,500 gas stations run dry. The protests caused widespread inconvenience and inflicted staggering losses on the British economy, estimated by the London Chamber of Commerce at $500 million a day. But far from outraging public opinion, the protesters won popular applause. And that clearly rattled Prime Minister Tony Blair and the senior ministers in his 3V2-year-old government. “Lives are at risk,” a fatigued Blair declared, pleading on nationwide television for an end to the blockades. “Real damage is now being done to real people.”

The British prime minister was not the only European politician under attack last week. Government leaders across the continent found themselves confronted by the same dilemma Blair faced: a spreading popular revolt against uniformly high fuel taxes. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder arrived for a meeting with local businessmen in Schwerin in northeastern Germany to find himself confronted by a booing, whistling crowd of 500 truckers and tractor-borne farmers, who taunted him with cries of “capitalist pig!” and “Schröder must go!” Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt spent the entire week negotiating an end to a trucker blockade that brought traffic in the centre of Brussels to a standstill, restricted access to the port cities of Antwerp and Zeebrugge and sealed the country’s main border crossings with France, Germany and Holland. Irish motorists rushed to the pumps last Thursday after trucking associations in that country announced plans for a 24-hour road blockage. Protests also flared in Spain, Poland, Hungary, Norway and the Netherlands.

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The huge scale and rapid sweep of the European fuel-tax revolt caught much of the continent’s political leadership off-guard. Like Blair, most tended to dismiss the early signs of a gathering storm as yet another symptom of something widely derided in Europe as the “French disease.” It was in France that the protests began, innocuously enough, in the small Atlantic fishing port of Concarneau late in August. Irked by the high cost of fuel, fishermen used their boats to blockade the port. Within a week, the movement spread to harbours all around the country, prompting the government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to agree to cut social security taxes for the fishing industry. That step, in time-honoured

French fashion, encouraged the country’s largely self-employed truckers, farmers, taxi drivers and others to launch their own industrial action. France’s roads were soon clogged by rotating series of “escargot” protests, snail-paced convoys of trucks, tractors, taxis, buses, even ambulances. After a week of unrest that crippled the French economy, Jospin once again caved in, offering to slash diesel-fuel taxes by $580 million over two years.

France’s partners in the 15-member European Union did not endorse Jospin’s move. “It was not helpful,” noted Spain’s Loyola de Palacio, the EU’s transport and energy commissioner. But few expected that the French disease would, on this occa-

sion at least, prove to be contagious. First to be hit was Britain, where the price of fuel at the g pump is the highest in § the EU, even though 5 the country is the only g major oil producer in | the union. Brynle §

Williams, a Welsh far| mer, started it all early | in September by orgaf nizing a vigil at the ¡

Shell refinery in Stan| low in northwestern I England. By last week, ^ a minority of the EU’s ¡

GROWING OUTRAGE AT THE PUMPS Average premium gasoline price per litre as of Sept. 11 in selected countries and the percentage that is tax:

United States . $0.68 . . 22.4%

Canada......$0.86 . . 37%

Germany.....$1.34 . . 67%

Belgium......$1.40 . . 63.4%

Italy ........$1.42 . . 63.2%

France.......$1.43 . . 68.6%

Netherlands . . . $1.55 . . 63.6% Britain.......$1.68 . . 75.8%

15 nations had evaded protests, while countries beyond the EU’s boundaries—Poland, Hungary and Norway in particular— were also threatened by the truckers. “We’ll Frenchify this conflict if the government does not take steps,” vowed Fernando Moraleda, general secretary of Spain’s Small Farmers Union.

Initially, most European political leaders attempted to shift the blame for the high price of fuel onto the shoulders of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, whose members agreed last week to increase production by 800,000 barrels a day in an effort to bring down oil prices that reached a recent 10-year high of $36 a barrel. “But the tactic did not work,” said Anis Tawil, a Londonbased Mideast oil analyst. “The revolt we are witnessing is about taxes, not oil prices.” Tawil has a point. A recent study by Goldman Sachs & Co. found that domestic fuel prices among the 11 nations in the single currency euro market had risen by 70 per cent on average over the past year. Much of that rise is a result of taxes, accounting for roughly 60 per cent of the price at the pump.

The rapid sweep of the revolt caught much of Europe’s political leadership off-guard

In Britain, which is not part of the sin-

gle currency, there is a 75.8-per-cent levy. (Government levies in Canada amount to 37 per cent of the price of premium gasoline, which last week stood at an average 86 cents per litre.) And perhaps

in response to the conflict in Europe, Finance Minister Paul Martin said the Canadian government might consider cutting fuel taxes. “The low-income people are the people for whom certainly there is the greatest concern,” said Martin following a speech in Toronto. “This is because of home-heating fuel and gasoline prices, and the question is, what is the best way to do it?”

European governments have justified the high taxes on ecological grounds, arguing that fuel taxes are necessary to both conserve diminishing fossilfuel reserves and curb the use of motor vehicles whose emissions damage the environment.

Whatever the merits of that argument, last weeks revolt demonstrated that Europe’s public is not yet ready to buy the logic. The action severely inconvenienced just about everybody, not only running the pumps dry but prompting panic buying that emptied supermarket shelves. It came perilously close to damaging emergency services in hospitals, medical clinics, police stations and fire halls. Yet a poll taken by the British Broadcasting Corp. at the height of the disturbances found that 80 per cent of the British public supported the blockades. A German poll by the Emnid Institute turned up 80per-cent public opposition to that country’s ecology tax on fuels.

Fear of losing that public support eventually prompted many of the protesters to call off their blockades late last week. “We’re lifting the siege while we still occupy the high moral ground,” said Welsh farmer Williams, the man who started it all in Britain. A relieved Blair welcomed the move, vowing at the same time that his government would not bow to the protesters’ demands. “However much people may dislike paying the petrol duty,” said Blair, “there’s no way that any government could or should yield to this form of protest.”

That may be true. But the authorities in Belgium and Norway, emulating the French government, granted financial concessions to the protesters. And in Britain, the truckers and the farmers and the fishermen have threatened to return to the barricades in 60 days if no measures are adopted. The disease may be French in origin, but clearly it is catching. E3