International Papers

Y2K in the U.K.

The predictions of the Y2K soothsayers have come true in Britain as the nation’s infrastructure collapses: Supermarkets are rationing bread and milk! Hospitals are running short of drugs! Banks have only a few days’ supply of cash on hand! Mail deliveries are threatened! Factory production lines could be halted, schools closed, and buses and trains grounded! Even the billion-dollar Millennium Dome seems to be snared by the curse, as the government contemplates its demolition  only a year after it opened.

The cause of the crisis, however, is not the millennium bug. The country is short on petrol. As of Thursday morning, the Guardian reported that London’s gas supplies were exhausted and supplies were perilously low throughout the country. The queen has authorized Prime Minister Tony Blair to take control of fuel distribution to maintain emergency services.

The crisis started Friday when irate truckers and farmers blockaded oil refineries and distribution centers. They are protesting the high price of gasoline—a gallon is around $5.50 in Britain, three-quarters of which is tax. Rising worldwide prices are responsible for the increase, but the demonstrators demand that the government decrease duties—as the French did last week. (For more on the run-up to the current crisis, see Monday’s “International Papers.”) Several papers attacked the government’s failure to judge the scale of the crisis and the speed with which it escalated. The Guardian asked how and why the protest movement “achieved such swift, overpowering success”:

Why have the pumps run dry when the picketing in many places was light, verging on vestigial? Why have oil companies made so little apparent effort to lift what in many places was hardly more than a token siege? Why, where the police had cleared the barricades out of the way, was nothing, even now, moving?

The paper suggested that the oil companies are colluding with right-wing protesters in hopes of boosting their takings. The Independent agreed, branding them “willing accomplices.” The government seemed to get tough Wednesday, vowing to ensure that the pumps are replenished. Establishing a much-mentioned parallel, the Financial Times called upon Blair to be firm and to emulate the “steel” Margaret Thatcher showed during the trade unions disputes of the 1980s. Or, playing off Thatcher’s famous declaration, “The lady’s not for turning,” the Independent declared, “The message has to be: the lad is not for turning.”

The ideological split regarding Britain’s high fuel taxes was also reprised. The Guardian said the government “need[s] to be far more robust in defending taxes on petrol as essential to protect our threatened environment,” while the Daily Telegraph accused leaders of duplicity:

They say, moralistically, that they tax it this way to help the environment (which it barely does). But they do almost nothing to improve alternative forms of transport, and they have felt able to keep piling the tax on because they know that motorists will have little choice but to go on paying it.

The Financial Times struck a similar note:

Driving has faced steep tax increases but contributes only about a quarter of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions. The use of other greenhouse fuels has been promoted by tax reductions: the 1997 Budget cut VAT on domestic electricity and gas.

Although the situation is worst in Britain, there were reports of protests in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and actions are under consideration in Ireland, Spain, and Poland. The French government’s capitulation to protesters last week was seen as weakening other governments’ positions; Le Figaro of Paris said, “Our European neighbors are suffering today from contamination from France.” Even the Hindustan Times bemoaned the price of oil, showing that the crisis is truly global.

Austria yawning: The European Union’s Tuesday repeal of sanctions imposed against Austria seven months ago was described in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post as a “non-event.” In February—even before the Austrian government had officially been formed—the EU placed the restrictions to express its disapproval of the presence of the far-right Freedom Party, and its then-leader Jörg Haider, in the ruling coalition. Last Friday, a panel of three “wise men” declared that retaining the measures, which according to the SCMP in practice amounted to little more than excluding Austrian ministers from EU group photo ops, would be counterproductive. The wise men found that Austria protected the rights of immigrants and minorities as well as or better than other EU countries. (For more on “Austria’s Raw Deal,” see Anne Applebaum’s take in Slate.)

The Euroskeptic Daily Telegraph suggested that the wise men presented their report a month ahead of schedule because the EU’s treatment of Austria concerns many Danes, who go to the polls Sept. 28 for a referendum on joining the European single currency. El País of Spain agreed that the Denmark vote was a factor. It said:

Many Danes considered [the sanctions] an unacceptable interference by big countries in the affairs of a small one. Nobody adopted sanctions against Italy when a party with xenophobic messages such as Fini joined the Berlusconi government.

Writing in Israel’s Ha’aretz Tom Segev claimed, “Austria was punished not because it is more despicable, but rather because it is weaker.” Israel’s recall of its ambassador from Vienna drove the EU to jump on the anti-Freedom Party bandwagon, but Segev cautioned:

Austria’s weakness and its marginal importance in Israel’s foreign policy considerations were the main factors in the decision to recall the Israeli ambassador from Vienna. Israel would probably have not recalled its ambassador in Paris, London or even Berlin, had a government relying on the racist right been established in one of these countries.

Twofer: The Sydney Morning Herald reprinted a story about Britain’s twin obsessions—toilets and queuing—that International Papers somehow missed in the Sunday Telegraph. It seems that some English nightclubs now offer “Twobicles”—two-person cubicles that “allow women to continue chatting away to each other as they powder their noses.” As companionable as this may be, there are fears that increased queues will flush away the social benefits. The non-linearity of queuing theory posits that the length of the line increases with the square of the duration of the visit. Thus if, as is estimated, women typically spend 2.3 minutes in the bathroom, the average queue will be 5.3 minutes—in other words, even more time to chat.