HUNDREDS of farmers and lorry and taxi drivers blocked roads in Brussels yesterday to push for help in coping with soaring fuel prices.
Convoys of taxis, tractors and lorries caused traffic havoc on the eve of a summit of EU leaders.
The protesters, echoing recent demonstrations elsewhere in Europe, say the high fuel prices threaten their livelihoods. They are demanding EU governments step in with subsidies.
Barricades went up around EU headquarters and 800 riot police were on standby the day before leaders from the EU’s 28 member nations are to gather in the Belgian capital for a two-day summit.
One farmer said: “This time, the protest is a calm one. The next time, they better watch out if there is no deal on aid.”
A similar protest by Spanish, French and Portuguese fishermen around EU headquarters two weeks ago turned violent, with smashed windows and overturned cars. In Spain earlier this month, drivers seriously disrupted supplies to factories and markets for a week.
Prime Minister Yves Leterme told demonstrators their protest was justified. “People are right to defend what they are doing,” he said after meeting the protesters. “They need an income and at the moment, I think we have some problems.”
Mr Leterme offered protesting farmers a plan that would let them spread out their annual farm tax payments.
EU officials have acknowledged there is little the EU can do to intervene directly on fuel prices, except to promote longer-term reforms to encourage alternate fuel use and boost food production.
EU leaders and officials have been reluctant to cut sales tax on fuel, as France has suggested, because it could distort market demand.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso cautioned against short-term handouts.
“Immediate steps are justified,” he said, but he called it “futile” to give handouts to offset energy price rises that are here to stay.