By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 31, 2008
LONDON, May 30 -- Protests over spiraling fuel costs spread to many parts of Europe on Friday as fishermen, truckers and farmers marched on government offices, blocked ports and oil depots and even handed out free fish to court public sympathy for their plight.
Protests that began two weeks ago in France, and closed down a major London highway earlier this week, spread Friday to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Ireland. Nationwide strikes brought the mighty Spanish and Portuguese commercial fishing industries to a virtual standstill.
Thousands of demonstrators, some carrying banners and some using fishing boats to blockade ports, protested bitterly against fuel prices that have more than tripled in the past five years, and have spiked 30 to 50 percent to record levels in recent months.
European gas and diesel prices are generally double -- or more -- U.S. prices, largely because European governments impose heavy taxes on fuel. In Britain, for example, where diesel costs the equivalent of more than $9 a gallon, the government charges a fuel duty of about $3.77 a gallon, plus a 17.5 percent consumption tax on top of that -- a tax on the tax.
While the fishermen and other people who depend on fuel to make their livings are angry about global crude-oil prices that have topped $130 a barrel, they are mainly protesting their governments' tax policies and demanding tax relief.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said earlier this week that the European Union should cut some fuel taxes.
Dozens of Belgian fishermen protested outside the E.U. headquarters in Brussels on Friday demanding help. The European Commission issued a statement saying it wanted to be flexible to assist fishermen, but it did not offer subsidies or tax breaks.
Thousands of fishermen staged a boisterous protest outside the Spanish Agriculture Ministry in Madrid, blowing whistles and horns and setting off fireworks that filled the air with smoke. Some carried banners that read, "The fishing sector is drowning," or warned Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, "You are sending us to the cemetery."
To win public support, the protesters passed out about 20 tons of free fish, touching off scuffles among largely elderly people who jostled each other for the handouts.
In Ireland, dozens of protesting fishermen passed out free haddock and monkfish on Dublin's famous O'Connell Bridge.
The Irish fishermen said they were angry about long-standing government subsidies to fishermen in France, Spain and other European competitors. They said the subsidies put Irish fishermen at a disadvantage that has been made worse by rising fuel prices.
In France, protests continued as farmers blocked two oil depots, near Dijon and Toulouse, with tractors. French truckers staged a "go-slow" demonstration on a major highway near Paris.
Thousands of Italian fishermen also joined the protests Friday, with union leaders predicting shortages of fish in markets and restaurants in coming days.