Don't Buy Off Fuel Protesters
Furious British truckers bring central London to a standstill. Fishermen occupy ports in Italy. Taxi drivers take to the streets in Germany. After starting in France in early September, protests against sky-high gasoline duties are erupting across Europe. And the protests against high energy costs are quickly morphing into a major tax revolt.
The fallout may be immense--especially in Britain, where taxes and duties account for 72% of the price of gas at the pump. So little fuel was getting through the barricades around Britain's nine major refineries by Sept. 12 that the Confederation of British Industry predicted large tracts of the economy could soon grind to a halt. The disruption to fuel supplies is costing companies $400 million a day.
Protesters want their governments to cut energy taxes and lower gas prices. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin defused French protests by pledging to lop $400 million off fuel taxes over the next two years. But other European leaders refuse.
They are right to stand firm. Europe's high fuel taxes may be painful for consumers, but lowering taxes makes it easier for OPEC to jack up its crude oil prices even more. And the taxes benefit the environment by encouraging carmakers to develop alternative, cleaner sources of fuel and persuade more people to use public transport. Nor is there any evidence that high gas prices damage European companies' competitiveness. By forcing companies to operate more efficiently, they could even improve it. Look at once-sleepy Air France: By restructuring its operations, it has overcome the impact of higher oil prices and boosted profits to record levels.
European governments should take immediate action-- including heavy policing, if necessary--to make sure that fuel tankers can leave their depots and keep filling stations and industry supplied. It would be a mistake to follow France's lead and try to buy off the protesters.