BRUSSELS, Sept 10 (Reuters)—Up to 2,500 trucks, buses and taxis converged on Brussels on Sunday, joining a wave of protests across Europe against rising fuel costs and demanding tax relief.
Just as a six-day blockade of French oil refineries and storage depots came to end, Belgian transport workers joined growing protests in other European countries. Sporadic blockades of oil refineries continued in Britain, following protests in Germany and Italy. In Ireland truckers threatened nationwide protests next week unless the government took action to cut the price of diesel.
Belgian protest leaders said a 50 percent rise in the cost of diesel fuel since the beginning of 1999 was threatening profitability. Emphasising that the problem is European in scope, they demanded action by the European Union to ensure that member countries lowered fuel excise taxes, as well as moves by the Belgian government to cut costs. With horns blaring and lights flashing, the vehicles snaked through Brussels after converging in front of the office of Transport Minister Isabelle Durant.
The demonstration remained peaceful despite Durant's refusal to
meet with leaders. Organisers said they would meet with Durant's
staff on Monday and would not make any decisions on further protests
pending the outcome of that meeting.
Before (fuel) was 10 to 12
percent of costs. Now it's 15 to 20 percent of costs, Paul
Laeremans, chairman of the Belgian Federation of Bus Operators (FBAA),
We can't recover the costs from our clients and
unemployment threatens, Laeremans said Philippe Degraef, director
of the Royal Belgian Federation of Truckers (FEBETRA), which
represents 2,700 businesses, said truckers face similar pressures.
For the majority, there's an enormous problem with
liquidity, he said.
In three weeks (fuel) has risen by 3 Belgian
francs (six cents), Degraef added.
Theoretically, it's true,
we can get this back from our clients. But in reality you can't
knock on someone's door every two weeks to demand increases.
Degraef said the rising fuel prices have meant additional costs per
year, per truck, of 200,000 Belgian francs ($4,299). Laeremans noted
that Belgium's transport minister, a member of the Green Ecolo
party, has been ideologically opposed to cutting fuel costs.
(Durant) wants a return to rail transport, he said.
But we have
to be realistic. The great majority of people and goods are
transported by road. Trains lack flexibility. ($1-46.52 Belgian