Dutch, Hungarian truckers win concessions amid fuel protests

LONDON - The Netherlands and Hungary handed concessions to truckers Saturday to avoid more of the fuel-price protests that have clogged Europe's highways, but Germany warned its truckers of a crackdown if blockades there intensified.

British motorists were still lining up at gas stations two days after truckers ended their blockades of oil facilities as the country worked to recover from the protest. Scattered protests continued in parts of Europe.

After initially refusing any subsidies to truckers, the Dutch government agreed to give taxi, bus and trucking companies, as well as other fuel-using companies, some $300 million to compensate for high fuel prices, Dutch television said. Companies also will be granted an extra three months to pay road taxes.

Dutch truckers, who have paralyzed highways with roadblocks for nearly a week, halted their protests. They had threatened action on Tuesday when Queen Beatrix is due to ride through the streets of The Hague in a horse-drawn carriage to parliament to present the annual budget.

Hungarian truckers had also threatened protests, but the government averted that for the time being at least when they agreed Saturday to postpone a 6 percent increase in excise taxes as long as the world crude oil price remains above $25 a barrel.

''This was an important achievement for us,'' said Istan Galambos, spokesman for the seven organizations representing truckers and taxi drivers. Union officials agreed in return to hold off on any demonstrations while the two sides hold further negotiations next week.

Without the revenues expected from the delayed tax, which had been due to start Jan. 1, ''we'll just grit our teeth and squeeze it out without backtracking on our planned public sector wage hikes and investment plans,'' Economics Minister Gyoergy Matolcsy said.

MOL, the Hungarian oil and gas company, raised wholesale gasoline prices by 2.7 percent and diesel prices 5.4 percent Friday.

European governments have taken a variety of stances when faced by the truckers protests that have swept across the continent, starting in France on Sept. 4. France granted the truckers a tax break. The British government rejected any changes in its fuel taxes, Europe's highest.

Europe adopted high gas taxes decades ago as an environmental measure to discourage excessive fuel consumption. Taxes range from 51 percent in Greece to 73 percent in Britain, where diesel cost an average of $4.33 a gallon last month.

Crude oil prices have tripled since last December, to more than $30 per barrel from $10, reaching a level transport workers call a threat to their livelihood.

In Germany on Saturday, truckers with horns blaring drove at a snail's pace through Hanover, Osnabrueck and Meiningen as well as on highways around Ulm, but caused no serious disruptions, police said.

As in Britain, truckers in Germany appear to have broad public support - some 70 percent in favor, according to a poll for the Bild newspaper and MDR television.

Interior Minister Otto Schily, in an interview with Der Spiegel, warned that he would use federal border patrol officers to clear any illegal blockades.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar agreed Saturday to push for stable fuel prices and said they're weighing measures to aid sectors hit by rising costs.

''We are not going to take any decisions in the short term that won't contribute to the stability of fuel prices,'' Aznar said at a joint news conference with Schroeder.

In Sweden, some 15 truckers protesting high fuel prices blocked one of Stockholm's two main harbor areas Saturday, obstructing ferry traffic. Protesters said they would allow only foods and medicines to pass through.

Trucker spokesman Adam Flamholc warned of more protests if the government doesn't act to cut prices.

Norwegian truckers threatened strikes. In Denmark, about 1,100 truckers met Saturday and decided to hold off on similar protests until they meet with the government Thursday.

In Britain, where the fuel distribution system was still recovering from the strikes, the government continued to struggle with the political fallout. ''We need to do more to get OPEC to get the world petrol price down,'' Treasury chief Gordon Brown said.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, ending a four-day visit to London, said he would press fellow OPEC members to create a mechanism to link production to price, to stabilize prices for consumers. But he said it was unfair to blame the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries entirely for recent protests.

''What the oil producer gets paid is about 16 percent. The majority of it is tax, which in fairness to the government of this country they have accepted and admitted,'' Obasanjo said.


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