Fishermen clash with police at EU headquarters over fuel protest

Belgian riot police uses pepperspray at angry fishermen after they started rioting close to the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. Some 200 fishermen joined a protest action demanding the EU to do more to alleviate high fuel prices. (AP)

Riot police armed with shields and batons charged hundreds of protesting fishermen outside European Union headquarters on Wednesday after a demonstration over high fuel prices turned violent.

Protesters hurled flares, firecrackers and rocks at police beyond razor-wire barricades. They also fired flare guns at the EU headquarters building. As they retreated down the main boulevard through Brussels’ European Union district, protesters broke into EU buildings, smashing windows and dragging out flags and other items to burn in the street.

Fishermen, truck drivers and farmers across Europe have protested in recent weeks to demand government aid to help compensate for high fuel costs, which they say are threatening their livelihoods.

In France on Wednesday, truckers and taxi drivers staged so-called “snail” protests in which they drove slowly to hold up traffic to express their anger at high gasoline and diesel prices.

Farmers left oil cans and other petroleum products in front of regional government offices in several cities in southern France. Protesters blocked deliveries to and from an oil depot in Cusset in eastern France, and blocked a river port in the major city of Lyon.

French government officials were to meet with transport unions to try to avert a nationwide strike.

Meanwhile, the CEO of France’s Total SA told French lawmakers in Paris that oil prices were expected to stay high for a long time and said consumers should get used to it.

Europeans face higher fuel prices than elsewhere because of excise taxes that are added to national sales tax. EU leaders have put the problem on top of their June 19-20 summit agenda.

During Wednesday’s protest in Brussels, about 400 fishermen from France, Italy, Spain and Portugal besieged the EU’s headquarters for several hours before the violence broke out.

At least two cars were trashed at an intersection and one was overturned. Hooded protesters pulled up paving stones apparently to use as weapons against the police, who were backed by water canons, dogs and two helicopters circling overhead.

Police pushed the protesters away from the EU’s landmark Berlaymont headquarters with water cannons mounted on trucks and baton charges by about 200 officers. It was not immediately clear whether any arrests were made.

Earlier, a delegation of fishermen met briefly outside the European Commission with senior EU officials to outline their plight and demand emergency aid.

“To have a sustainable fishery we need to have cheaper fuel prices,” said Pierre D’Acunto, a fishermen representative from the southern French port town of Sete on the Mediterranean coast. “It’s impossible to work with these prices.”

Patrick Tabone, a senior official from the office of EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg, offered no immediate aid to the protesters. He recommended the fishermen accept calls for a mass overhaul of Europe’s fisheries sector, including cutting back the size of fleets to prevent overfishing and to cut costs.

“What we need to ensure is that the responses we come up with are a real help to the sector, not only in the short term, but in the long term,” Tabone told the fishermen.

D’Acunto said European fishermen would continue their protests across Europe and picket EU agriculture and fisheries ministers talks planned for Luxembourg later this month.

Under pressure at home from truckers and fishermen, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde on Monday asked EU nations to slash sales tax on fuel. Other EU nations are skeptical of the French plan, saying it does nothing to encourage people to consume less energy in the long term or to push producers to pump more oil.

 

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