Dockers besiege EU parliament over reforms

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The Independent Online

Dock workers fought police and smashed windows at the European Parliament and paralysed several ports around the continent as protests against plans to liberalise port services ended in violence.

Police used water cannons and tear gas to keep thousands of dockers away from the Parliament's building in Strasbourg, where MEPs will vote on the measure tomorrow. But the authorities failed to prevent them from smashing windows with rocks and logs and injuring 12 policemen, one of whom required hospital treatment. Security forces fired pepper gas into the crowds as demonstrators set fire to several cars. At least 6,000 workers from all of Europe's major ports took part in yesterday's protest, which coincided with industrial action. Antwerp, Europe's second- biggest dock, suffered a 24-hour strike and work at Rotterdam, Europe's biggest port, was disrupted for three hours. Marseilles and Le Havre in France, and Thessaloniki in Greece were were also affected.

The protests underline the depth of opposition to the European Commission's drive to free up markets for competition. In addition to the legislation on ports, the commission also plans to revive sensitive moves to free up the EU's multi-billion services market.

The draft legislation on ports proposes opening cargo handling to competition, ending monopolies for the loading and unloading of goods. Unions fear the measures will cost jobs, depress wages and erode safety at 400 European ports. They say the plan would allow ships' crews to handle cargo. Supporters of the legislation argue that the law would require cargo handlers to obtain a permit from national authorities, a move designed to dispel fears over safety.

Ironically, MEPs are expected to water down the reforms. Georg Jarzembowski, the German conservative responsible for the legislation said 149 amendments had been tabled. Alyn Smith, an MEP for the Scottish Nationalist Party, said: "The sad thing is that the European Parliament is the institution which is likely to support their cause."