Letter from Prague

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I've just returned from two week's holiday with my parents in the South of France. It was a very pleasant two weeks, mostly spent lying about in the sun, half-heartedly ambling up hills and poking round the market in the next village. But it's a good job I didn't want to stray too far from the little village where I was staying, because during my second week France was brought to a standstill by a dispute that threatens to paralyse the whole of Europe.

At first I was caught up in the widespread public sympathy with 'Les Routiers'--the associations of professional lorry drivers who revolted over spiralling French taxes on fuel--which, after Great Britain, are the second highest in Europe. I spent hours poring over charts and tables in the local paper--comparing the cost of petrol and diesel with prices in Belgium, Germany and Spain. I admired the sheer cheek of the lorry and taxi drivers, as they silenced busy roads and held nearby cities such as Montpellier and Nimes to ransom. I stared in disbelief as the village was repeatedly buzzed by low-flying military jets--my parents told me the French air force always fly low during times of national crisis--to remind the people who's boss.

It was a surprise, then, as well as a relief, to return--by bus--to Prague. I turned on the radio to learn that the blockades had spread to Belgium, Britain and Germany, and Poland was also getting restless. But looking out of the window, I discovered that it was business as usual in the Czech capital. The Czechs were clearly not about to take to the streets over the price of petrol, due to a mixture or scepticism and apathy. 'Czechs want to own their own cars,' said one person--'and they realise they have to make sacrifices for them.' That sacrifice was the high price of fuel.

Walking through the congested streets of Prague, as the crisis resolved itself in France, and deteriorated in Britain, my sympathy for Europe's drivers began to wane. Most Europeans now consider car ownership a God-given right, rather than a privilege, regardless of the negative side-effects--pollution, congestion, accidents. This is even more apparent in the Czech Republic, where people have only recently been given the opportunity to sit for hours in traffic jams in new cars rather than old ones. Cars have quickly become a symbol of affluence and personal freedom, and marketed as fashion accessories. There is now one car in Prague for every two people, and the traffic in the capital is rapidly approaching gridlock.

Many governments on the continent have decided that cars and lorries are not the answer to Europe's transport needs. It would be naive to argue that those governments spend every penny of tax revenues from fuel on financing more efficient and more environmentally friendly means of transport. But those governments do seem to have come to some sort of consensus that the car is not the future. The result is high fuel taxes, and more investment in modern, efficient and clean public transport.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, unfortunately, gave in and made concessions to the lorry drivers. His British counterpart Tony Blair has refused to budge, arguing--correctly in my opinion--that transport policy should be decided at the ballot box, not by blockades. Similarly Germany's Chancellor Schroeder has warned German lorry drivers he will not back down--although sharing power with Germany's Green Party--he simply can't afford to.

Czech lorry drivers finally seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. Protests and blockades are planned for this weekend. If the polls are to be believed, the Czech public, despite being blessed with a cheap and highly efficient public transport system, will give them their overwhelming support. But on this occasion I hope the Czech government doesn't listen. Europe--West and East--is slowly choking on exhaust fumes. It's time we looked for other ways of getting around. Encouraging people to drive more, rather than less, is madness.