Coordinated action of Spanish and French truckers blocking border raises fears of food shortages
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris and Graham Keeley in Barcelona / The Guardian / Tuesday June 10 2008
Concerns were growing last night over a summer of coordinated European fuel protests after tens of thousands of Spanish truckers blocked roads and the French border, sparking similar action in Portugal and France, while unions across Europe prepared fresh action over the rising price of petrol and diesel.
Spanish hauliers began an indefinite strike, demanding a government aid package to offset the effect of record oil prices. Lorry drivers blocked motorways at the border with France and caused 12-mile tailbacks around Madrid and Barcelona. Long queues formed at Spanish and Portuguese supermarkets after truckers said shops could run out of fresh food in days. Even before the strike began thousands of people formed long lines outside petrol stations and supermarkets.
Supermarket chains Eroski and Carre-four said they had stocked up on food ahead of the strike, but some markets closed yesterday. While lorry drivers picketed distribution centres, the Spanish government said there would be no electricity or petrol shortages. But as many as 15% of Madrid petrol stations were dry by last night, according to a retailers’ association.
Main routes to France through Catalonia and the Basque country were blocked, with reports that lorries crossing picket lines were stoned and their windscreens smashed.
French lorry drivers joined the protest to seal off their side of the border. French pickets allowed cars through but around 600 lorries were blocked. Up to 200 French hauliers gridlocked Bordeaux with a go-slow convey that caused nearly 20 miles of tailbacks in and around the city. Outside Lille farmers on tractors staged protests, and around 500 farmers converged on Toulouse for a demonstration.
In Portugal lorry drivers also launched an open-ended strike, and one group threatened to block main roads running south to the Algarve to prevent goods reaching the tourist region. Trucks that broke picket lines had their windscreens smashed.
Jérôme Cordier of Unostra, the French union of small and medium haulage companies, said yesterday’s protests marked a new phase to coordinate strikes across Europe for maximum impact, a development that could threaten widespread disruption during the holiday season. “We’re taking this up a gear and focusing on the European dimension,” he said. France will be hit by open-ended actions next Monday, when three haulage unions join forces for the first time. In Italy lorry drivers are preparing for an all-out strike between June 30 and July 4.
In Britain around 300 lorries are expected to converge on central London on July 2 for TransAction’s campaign for European parity on fuel duty and road fuel prices, and the Road Haulage Association could hold its planned mass rally at the same time. Unions for small haulage firms from seven EU states, including France, the Netherlands, Hungary and Slovenia, will meet in Brussels this week to coordinate action, hoping to force EU governments to level out taxes and prices.
Amid expert warnings that the price of oil will remain high for years to come, soaring to perhaps $200 a barrel, a summit of the EU’s 27 heads of government next week will reject short-term solutions such as the cap on VAT on fuel proposed by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. But, with surging food and fuel prices dominating their agenda, they will encourage national governments to adopt measures to cushion their impact on the poor and most vulnerable – for a limited period.
A chorus of ministers, diplomats and officials said fiscal measures would send the wrong signals to people that they could carry on consuming as before – and to oil producers that it did not matter how high prices went. “Any subsidies or tax-cuts would simply divert even more money to oil-exporting countries,” Joaquín Almunia, the EU economic and monetary affairs commissioner, said.
The Spanish government said it would announce measures tomorrow to ease the strain of fuel price rises, in the hope of reaching a deal with lorry drivers by midweek. The measures included allowing hauliers to make financially favourable changes to their contracts during times of economic hardship. The government would also give €55m (about £43.6m) in aid to drivers who wanted to retire early.
The strikes come after three weeks of fuel protests that have blockaded fishing ports. Some Spanish and Italian fishermen remained in port yesterday, while in France Mediterranean ports reopened as fishermen suspended their strike until a meeting of ministers in Brussels on June 23.
Additional reporting by David Gow, Brussels; David Pallister, London; Tom Kington, Rome.
Around the world
Protests at rising fuel prices are not confined to Europe. A succession of developing countries have provoked public outcry by ordering fuel price increases. Yesterday Indian police forcibly dispersed hundreds of protesters in Kashmir who were angry at a 10% rise introduced last week. Protests appeared likely to spread to neighbouring Nepal after its government yesterday announced a 25% rise in fuel prices. Truckers in South Korea have vowed strike action over the high cost of diesel. Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have all raised pump prices. Malaysia’s decision last week to increase prices generated such public fury that the government moved yesterday to trim ministers’ allowances to appease the public.
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