- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

At least two auto plants in Belgium stopped production yesterday because trucks delivering parts either had no fuel or couldn't penetrate blockades of protesters.

The European operations of Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. shut down plants in northern Belgium yesterday in response to ongoing protests over the skyrocketing price of gas as well as fuel taxes that are as high as 80 percent.

But with blockades fading away in Britain and agreements with truckers unions in Belgium, officials at U.S. companies are hopeful protests and fuel shortages will cause no long-term problems for their European operations.

"I think it's going to be a very short-term thing," said Don Hume, London-based spokesman for Ford's European operations.

Ford ceased production of its passenger car Mondeo at its Antwerp plant yesterday because deliveries of engines stopped. The Antwerp plant also produces a light truck, Mr. Hume said, but assembly of that vehicle was not interrupted yesterday. The plant assembles an estimated 1,200 vehicles daily.

GM suspended production of its Opel Astra yesterday because parts deliveries were unable to penetrate blockades at the Belgian border, said Stefan Weinmann, a Zurich-based spokesman for GM Europe.

The engine shortage forced GM Europe to cancel its afternoon shift at the plant in Antwerp, which produces about 800 cars a day.

Both automakers said it was not clear yesterday whether parts shipments would begin reaching plants or production would be suspended further.

"We're hopeful the situation can be resolved soon so we can get up and running," Mr. Weinmann said. "I would be surprised if [the long-term effect] is significant because we expect it to be back to normal very soon."

The European subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp. yesterday dropped price increases on gas and diesel that it imposed two days ago.

If protests end soon, U.S. and European companies are unlikely to sustain any long-term damage from lost revenue, said Ethan Harris, senior economist at New York-based Lehman Bros. Global Economics.

"It's a little early to talk about major impacts. If the protests end soon, then there's little permanent effect to the economy," Mr. Harris said.

Companies will scramble to increase production and will be able to make up for lost time, he said.

"The longer it goes, the more damage it does to the economy," Mr. Harris said.

An accord between the Belgian government and that country's trucking unions was expected to begin easing the symptoms caused by the shortage, Mr. Weinmann said.

Belgium's three trucking federations said yesterday they would lift their blockades of roads and oil refineries. Only two of the three unions have signed an accord with the government stipulating a cut in road taxes, insurance and social charges.

Blockades started to crumble in London over concern that protests were beginning to threaten people relying on emergency services.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair accused protesters of mounting "illegal" blockades around refineries and by late yesterday, after issuing warnings and deploying the army to make sure supplies got through to emergency services, most blockades ceased.

But in other European countries, protests gained momentum. Protests against the fuel prices also flared in Spain, Sweden, Greece, Germany and the Netherlands. Protests in Ireland were to start at midnight.

Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx Corp., the package delivery company that employs 6,000 people in its division covering Europe, Africa and the Middle East, said European operations have not been affected by either protests or fuel shortages.

"We've had fuel and had the ability to get fuel. It hasn't been a factor. That's not to say that at some point it won't be," FedEx spokesman Greg Rossiter said.

A spokesman at United Parcel Service, the Atlanta-based package delivery company, said fuel supplies at major European facilities were large enough to keep its fleet of 14,000 vehicles on the continent moving.

Blockades did cause some delays in delivering packages yesterday, UPS spokesman John Flick said, but blockades amounted to nothing more than "sporadic challenges," he said.

Ports in Belgium faced some challenges. While ships were unaffected by blockades that clogged roads, some trucks carrying cargo to ships were blocked at port entries, and shipping companies sought other ways to move goods yesterday.

"Like other shipping lines, we are trying to send as many containers as we can from the Netherlands to Antwerp either by rail or on the barges on the inland waterways. But, of course, there is not enough capacity on the rail and barges to carry all the containers that would normally go by road to and from the ports, so there will be delays if the situation is not resolved soon," said Yvonne Mulder, spokeswoman in London for Tampa, Fla.-based shipping company Lykes Lines.

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