Europeans Feel Pinch at Gas Pump

Friday, June 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) — Although gasoline prices traditionally are higher on this side of the Atlantic, typically submissive European consumers are clamoring for relief from worsening pain at the pump.

From Britain to Hungary to Finland, the outrage at rising gas prices sounds almost, well, American in its intensity.

``Prices are outrageous,'' seethed Budapest book publisher Tamas Bekes.

``It's madness,'' said Valerie Khoury, a housewife in suburban Paris.

European motorists are long accustomed to paying as much as four times what Americans shell out for a tankful of gas, due to fuel taxes that can add a staggering 80 percent to the retail gas price in the region. Nonetheless, they have become more dependent on their cars, for pleasure as much as for work.

``The car for Italians is a habit, a tradition, like spaghetti,'' said Italian taxi driver Michele Di Russo at a filling station in central Rome. ``Gas prices will not affect its usage. The car is entertainment.''

As in the United States, where prices have soared in some areas to more than $2 a gallon, recent increases in the price of crude oil used to make gasoline are sending prices up. The cost of unleaded gas has risen by 16 percent in France, 14 percent in Italy and 11 percent in Belgium.

There are few signs that resentment at the increases is ferocious enough to boil over into a consumer rebellion.

``People have been bludgeoned by one successive rise after another. We're so used to them, we've become desensitized,'' said Michael Johnson, spokesman for the Automobile Association of Britain.

According to Johnson's organization, the average price for a gallon of unleaded gasoline in Britain this month is $3.27 — more than twice what Britons paid a decade ago.

Norway is the only European nation with costlier gas, at $3.31 a gallon, the AA said. France is the next most expensive, at $2.80, followed by Italy, Germany, Portugal, Austria and Spain.

The difference from one country to the next is due mostly to government taxes, which in Britain and France account for more than 80 percent of the price of gas. Finland had the next highest fuel tax, at 78 percent, followed by Belgium and Poland at 75 percent each, the AA said.

This tax bite has left some motorists feeling passive and powerless.

``We can't really do anything about it. It's in the hands of the government,'' said office worker Norah Lydon, who spoke as she filled her tank in the London suburb of Edgware.

An average 27 cents of every dollar that Americans spend at the pump goes toward tax. Thus the tripling in world oil prices since December 1998 has caused gasoline prices to spike more dramatically in the United States than in Europe.

``It's just not the big deal here that it is in the U.S. because the price is masked by tax,'' said Jeremy Elden, an oil and gas industry analyst at Lehman Brothers in London.

Klaus Rehaag of the Paris-based International Energy Association argued that the U.S.-style car culture is not as strong in Europe, where large cities have good public transportation and are linked by dense rail networks.

But discontent over gas prices appears widespread and rising.

``Prices are just ridiculous,'' said Risto Hyvonen of Helsinki, Finland. ``I don't drive any less now. But whereas before I used to tank up at any old gas station, now I look for special offers.''

The Finance Ministry in neighboring Sweden has received 80,000 letters in the past few months alone protesting its 70-plus percent tax on gasoline, ministry spokesman Haakan Boberg said.

Public pressure already has proven effective in Austria. Last month, the Austrian state-owned oil company agreed to trim 2.5 cents off each gallon of unleaded gas after automobile clubs and labor groups complained that the country's prices were among the highest in Europe.

In Germany, costlier gas is forcing up prices for taxi rides, pizza deliveries and even emergency visits from locksmiths.

Some Europeans are economizing by planning errand trips more carefully and taking buses or subways where convenient.

But Czech businessman Martin Kukas spoke for many in the region when he acknowledged his automobile dependency.

``Even if the price goes up further, there's nothing I can do,'' he said at a busy intersection in downtown Prague. ``I just need to use the car.''