Le Strike: Europe Reacts to High Energy Prices

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 5/27/2008 02:52:00 AM
I sometimes get a chuckle when friends and relatives in the US of A complain about "high" oil prices which now approach $4 a gallon Stateside. To put things into perspective, it is worthwhile to point out that oil is not particularly dear in the US by global standards. Here in Europe, for instance, a gallon of the black stuff will cost you $9. As fuel use is taxed to death in this part of the world, there are obvious incentives to alternative means of personal transportation. However, a lack of alternatives is hitting some harder than others, especially those who cannot but rely on petrol for their living. Today we have two examples. First up are fishermen in the Eurozone's Club Med (France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal) complaining about how high oil prices which have made their livelihoods unviable. From Agence-France Presse:

Protests by fishing fleets against soaring fuel costs threatened to spread across Europe, as French fishermen voted Monday to extend their port blockade and Spanish fleets joined the stoppage with several other countries likely to follow. Italian and Greek fishermen may also join the strike later this week. In France the cost of a litre of diesel fuel for fishing boats has shot up from 45 euro cents (70 US cents) a litre to 70 in just six months.

After tense talks in France's biggest fishing port, Boulogne Sur Mer, fishermen voted to reject an aid package from Paris and extend their strike and oil blockade in a dozen key ports by another 48 hours. Meanwhile fishermen in northeast Spain also went on strike Monday over the same grievance, in a stoppage which is expected to spread to the country's other ports Tuesday. The striking French fishing fleet planned to call for a Europe-wide protest, participants at the Boulogne meeting said. In Ancona, Italy, a "Mediterranean vigilance committee" grouping fishermen from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain called for an indefinite strike from Wednesday, but it was not clear how representative they were.

The four main Mediterranean fishing federations -- Italy, Spain, Greece and Malta -- met later Monday in Paris to discuss possible joint action. The chairman of the Mediterranean fishing association Medisamak, Mourad Kahoul, told AFP on the sidelines of the Paris meeting that European fishermen planned a demonstration this week in Brussels, without giving further details.

The French strike affects fleets in the English Channel and the Mediterranean, although one delegation, from Etaples near Calais, voted to return to work. Fleets along the Atlantic coast agreed at the weekend to head back to sea, after the government promised aid to compensate for diesel costs. "Our demands are still the same, a standardised fuel price across Europe and a responsible management of (EU) quotas," said Thierry Lepretre, head of the fishing committee in Boulogne, where groups of fishermen strung cables across the port entrance to stop colleagues heading out to sea.

French fishermen are also blockading oil depots and refineries on the country's Atlantic, Mediterranean and Channel coasts. The fishermen escalated their protests last week, disrupting cross-Channel traffic, blocking fuel depots and ransacking fish stands at supermarkets as industry leaders negotiated with President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

Fishermen in northeastern Spain launched a similar protest on Monday to demands for government aid, saying they too are hard hit by high fuel prices. Fishermen in Belgium and Portugal are also planning protests later this week to press demands for government aid. An Italian association, the Federation of Fishing Cooperatives, said its leadership would meet Wednesday to discuss strike action.

A big national demonstration is planned in Madrid on Friday. In Spain union and government representatives met in Madrid on Monday but the talks ended without concrete agreement. Both sides agreed to future meetings aimed at countering the rising cost of fuel. The government "understands the difficulties faced by the fishing sector," said fisheries ministry spokesman Juan Carols Martin after the meeting, but stressed that it was not the only industry suffering from high commodity prices. The Spanish government has already promised a 60 percent increase in subsidies to fishing fleets to relieve their fuel expenses. In France, where fishermen have already been out on strike for several days, Paris has offered an emergency package of 100 million euros (173 million dollars).

Aside from fishermen reeling from dear petrol in the Mediterranean, British lorry [that's "truck" for everyone else] drivers are also demanding rebates on fuel from the government as fuel prices soar. Plus, more stringent vehicle emissions regulations which are set to come into effect may incur the wrath not only of the transport industry but also of the general public. With gas prices these high, aren't there enough disincentives to using dilapidated, highly polluting vehicles? In any event, do visit British news sites in the coming days for possible footage of lorries choking London in protest. [UPDATE: See this footage, f'rinstance.] They sure do love "industrial action" here in Europe. From the BBC:

Hauliers say diesel prices topping 120p a litre, plus a planned 2p fuel tax rise, will drive firms "to the wall". Protesters are demanding an "essential user" duty rebate for HGV drivers. It comes as Chancellor Alistair Darling prepares to meet Labour MPs concerned about plans to increase road tax on older, more polluting vehicles.

A convoy of lorries, led by drivers from Kent, is expected to make its way to central London before handing a petition to 10 Downing Street. Motorists have been warned to expect major delays. In Wales, organisers say around 100 drivers have signed up to take part in a 60-mile convoy protest from Cross Hands, near Llanelli, to the Senedd in Cardiff Bay, where they too will hand in a petition.

Mike Presneill, of Transaction 2007, who is helping organise the London protest, said: "Fuel is rocketing. The government has the power to act but appears not to be listening. Hundreds of UK transport firms are being driven to the wall." Haulage company boss Peter Carroll, another of the protest organisers, told BBC News: "The main thing we're hoping to achieve is to get the government to recognise that this isn't a problem, or even a big problem, it's an absolute crisis."

With each lorry now costing £1,000 per week in fuel, he said hundreds of UK companies would go out of business if nothing was done, to be replaced by continental hauliers using cheaper fuel from abroad. He said drivers recognised the government could not control global oil prices but said it an "essential user" duty rebate of between 20p and 25p per litre for lorries would help firms compete on a "level playing field" with foreign hauliers.

Mr Carroll said a similar rebate scheme was already operating in the UK for bus companies. He added: "If they do that, we keep in business, we continue to pay our taxes and play our part in UK business and also the government wins because we take some of the inflationary pressure out of the economy. "Because all the time that our fuel is going up, we're trying to push those costs onto our customers, who in turn try to push it onto members of the general public."

The government is coming under mounting pressure over fuel prices and its plans to increase road tax for vehicles registered since 2001 which emit higher levels of pollutants. Owners of the most polluting cars could face a tax rise of as much as £200 - a move which the Conservatives say the increase will hit poorer drivers hardest.

A group of 35 Labour MPs have signed a motion calling on the Treasury to think again about the retrospective aspects of the policy. They are expected to warn Mr Darling the government could lose votes over the issue. One Labour MP warned the party risked alienating "Mondeo man" - the name given in the past to middle-income voters Labour needed to woo if it wanted to defeat the Conservatives.

A Treasury spokesman on Monday said the government was aware of their concerns. But environment minister Joan Ruddock said that, while she sympathised with motorists, the government "could not lose sight of the environment agenda". She denied the retrospective aspect of the policy was unfair, saying: "Over a 10-year period... I think the direction we have been going in has been clear to people at the time," she said.

Labour MP Ronnie Campbell, who framed the MPs' motion, told the BBC: "The increase is unfair to people who bought their cars a year ago, not knowing that the government was going to put that road tax on." He said the government was in danger of making the same sort of mistake as when it abolished the 10p income tax rate, and was accused of penalising poorer families.

Mr Campbell, MP for Blyth Valley, also called on the government to think again over plans to raise the cost of fuel duty by 2p per litre from the autumn. Meanwhile, Business Secretary John Hutton is to tell conference delegates Britain needs to become more energy efficient. The country must invest substantial amounts in alternative sources of power, such as wind and wave farms, he will tell the British Atlantic Survey meeting in Cambridge.