13th May 2021

Oil-shocked fishermen clash with police on EU doorstep

  • The fishing industry employs some 400,000 people in the EU (Photo: Commission)

Fishermen badly hit by the ongoing oil price shock themselves attempted to shake the heart of Brussels on Wednesday (4 June), setting fires, overturning cars and skirmishing with police on the doorstep of the European institutions.

Black and orange smoke from fireworks set off by the protesters swirled in the air surrounding the European Commission and Council buildings as hundreds of militant fishermen boisterously chanted, sang, and rattled the barbed wire and police barricades, denouncing European leaders for abandoning them.

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Some 200 fishermen from France, Italy, Spain and Portugal were held back from the EU offices by rows of helmeted riot police who charged the fishermen after they fired flares in their direction.

Two cars were overturned and a litter bin was set on fire. A handful of windows in some EU buildings were also broken.

One flare landed metres from the entrance to the commission entrance as civil servants on their cigarette breaks gathered to watch the commotion.

The main streets surrounding the buildings were closed off by police roadblocks and the three closest subway stations had to be shut down.

"We're here to give the bureaucrats a bloody good shaking!" said Patrick Dameuve, a cod fisher from Dieppe and member of the Mediterranean Trawlers' Vigilance Committee.

At one point, the fishermen set European Union flags on fire while helicopters circled overhead

"None of our leaders have any principles," insisted Mr Dameuve, who went on to use a much stronger vernacular cursing both the French government and the EU.

He complained that diesel costs were wiping out his livelihood and demanded that governments offer financial support to the fishermen to enable them to survive the high oil prices. The price of diesel has skyrocketed some 30 percent in the last four months and has gone up 240 percent in the last five years.

The fishing industry employs some 400,000 people in the EU and is particularly important in the four countries from whence most of the fishermen hail.

The fishermen are demanding government help to cut the price of diesel down to 40 cents a litre from its current 80 cents.

The demands come up against EU state aid regulations that limit the amount of financial support member states can offer to different sectors of their economies. The fishermen want such restrictions lifted.

Fishermen jeer commission adviser

The head of fisheries commissioner Joe Borg's cabinet of advisers, Patrick Tabone, came down to the entrance of the commission building to talk to the protesters, although he did not offer the fishermen anything.

"There is the problem of high costs at a time when the sector is also in a situation where there is overcapacity and where there is a need for restructuring," Mr Tabone told the fishermen, who then jeered his recommendations.

On Monday, French finance minister Christine Lagarde suggested EU states cut fuel taxes to aid fishermen and other sensitive sectors.

"The oil prices reached in recent days signal that we have entered the era of expensive oil," she said in a letter to the commission and her fellow European finance ministers.

Her proposal however was rejected by her colleagues, who responded that the solution was a reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

Austrian finance minister Wilhelm Molterer warned: "What will you do when prices fall again, reintroduce the tax? I'd like to hear the political discussions then!"

Ironically, the crisis comes at a time when commission fisheries officials have warned of acute problems of overfishing as the world's seas and oceans run out of fish. Last week, fisheries regulators warned they were ready to shut down the bluefin tuna fishery within days if they saw evidence of overfishing.

With member states unwilling to voluntarily downsize their fleets, the oil price crisis is doing their job for them.

The march on Brussels, which had been predicted but whose precise timing had been kept secret to "maintain the element of surprise", comes on the heels of a Europe-wide fishing strike and intermittent blockades of ports across the continent by angry fishermen.

The Vigilance Committee only decided on Tuesday to mount the protest, taking a vote during a discussion on how to advance their strike movement.

Oil prices causing protests across Europe

Record oil prices are producing a wave of militancy across Europe by producers and those industries most acutely hit by the crisis.

In recent weeks, dairy producers across Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands and France, squeezed between high petrol prices and supermarkets who have steadily cut the payments for milk, are also on strike and have been spraying their fields with milk rather than selling it.

Lorry drivers, taxi drivers and ambulance workers across Europe also staged protests. On Tuesday, hauliers blockaded French oil firm Total's refineries and fuel depots in Lyon and Marseille. The same Marseille refinery was blockaded by farmers last week who were only chased away by police using baton charges and tear gas.

Yesterday, winegrowers blocked the Frontignan pres de Sete fuel terminal on France's Mediterranean coast, according to AFP reports.

Last week, British truck drivers blocked streets in central London while their French counterparts mounted a 'go-slow' bringing traffic almost to a halt on key highways surrounding Paris. Bulgarian capital Sofia was also hit by lorry, bus and taxi driver protesters who blocked the city's ring road.

The mounting oil crisis, in which a barrel of oil briefly hit $135 on 22 May, has already shaken world leaders as its effect on food prices combined with other stresses on global food supplies to produce riots throughout the developing world in April.

Faced with the growing unrest, EU leaders are to discuss the issue at their 19-20 June summit.

The fishermen, for their part, intend to continue their protests across the continent, marching on a meeting of agriculture and fisheries ministers in Luxembourg in a fortnight.

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