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The BBC's Claire Doole in Luxembourg
"France called this meeting in response to the Europe-wide protests"
 real 28k

Thursday, 21 September, 2000, 01:47 GMT 02:47 UK
Europe transport ministers in disarray
Spanish farmers blocking the streets of Girona in protest at high fuel prices
Spanish farmers went ahead with their protest anyway
European transport ministers have failed to agree on a common approach to the fuel crisis, which continues to reverberate around Europe.


Nothing has been learned from the petrol shocks of 1973 and 1979

Paul Lannoye, European Parliament member
Talks continued late into the night in Luxembourg but France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, was unable to marshal a consensus on harmonising indirect taxes on fuel.

Instead, ministers concentrated on devising ways of preventing a repeat of the blockades which have severely disrupted much of Europe.

They agreed in principle to a series of early warning mechanisms, including regular meetings with the road haulage industry to hear its concerns and iron out potential problems.

Disagreement

The ministers also agreed to set up a traffic information exchange system for the travelling public, with a "hotline" and website to ensure that key routes remained unblocked if protests arose in future.

Hamburg protests
Scenes of protests in Hamburg caught in a lorry driver's mirror
And they vowed to press oil-producing countries to increase production and cut prices.

But a BBC correspondent in Luxembourg says that such steps are not binding and will do little to alleviate truckers' immediate concerns over high fuel prices.

The disagreements at the meeting reflected the wildly different reactions to the crisis adopted by governments across Europe so far.

Who's done what
France: 15% cut in diesel duties
Italy - tax cuts; rebates speeded up
Netherlands - $113m rebates deal
Belgium - no tax cuts, but other help agreed
Spain - no tax cuts, but aid package planned
Greece, Sweden, Norway - no concessions
Germany - no concessions, but hints of future tax breaks
UK - no concessions, but Labour popularity dives
Ireland - talks planned but early cuts ruled out

France, the Netherlands and Italy have cut taxes on diesel fuel, and earlier on Wednesday France, which was the first government to give ground, announced that it was also bringing forward another tax concession.

This runs contrary to an appeal by the European Commissioner for Transport and Energy Loyola de Palacio for governments not to use tax cuts to defuse the crisis.

Other member states such as Britain and Belgium, however, have refused to cut fuel taxes.

And the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who also opposes tax cuts, has responded to a new rise in German fuel prices by calling for an investigation into the oil companies.

History 'ignored'

The concluding statement reflected the sensitivity of the issue by stressing both the importance of the fuel tax question and the fact that tax issues were the responsibility of finance ministers.

Motorway go-slow in Germany
Road chaos hit Germany as the crisis spread
Years ago governments across Europe began imposing heavy taxes on fuel to promote conservation, but the excepionally high global level of oil prices has made that less popular.

Yet even before the meeting began, environmentalists in the European Parliament accused member states of serious negligence in failing to learn from previous oil price booms in the 1970s.

"The EU has paid (only) lip service to a sustainable transport policy and to the shifting of merchandise from road to rail," it said.

Protests spread

As the ministers met, new protests were staged on Wednesday by Spanish fishermen and farmers, who blockaded fuel depots in the south and east.

Swedish protesters have also kept up their blockade at the major port of Gothenburg.

But the situation in Germany has eased after large-scale protests earlier in the week.

Several governments - particularly the French and British - have suffered plummeting popularity as the crisis engulfed them.

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See also:

19 Sep 00 | Europe
IMF warns of oil price threat
12 Sep 00 | Europe
In pictures: Going nowhere fast
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