The story of red diesel would be somewhat comical if it weren't for the fact that its completely true.
Let me give you a bit of history first:
For many years, from the advent of modern yachting after the second world war, diesel in use by yachts across much of Europe was supplied free of road tax, and often marked with dye to avoid it being illegally used in road vehicles. In the UK, Belgium and Holland in particular, it was dyed red. This is the same red fuel that is used by farmers and in domestic heating without the tax burden.
In the early to mid 2000's, it was becoming less politically acceptable across Europe for yachting to receive fuel tax free as motorists were increasingly squeezed with rising fuel prices and increasing tax levels, and thus, Europe passed legislation to require tax to be paid on fuel for boating for leisure, just leaving commercial users (mainly fisherman) not paying tax.
While its fair to say that the sailing community, and especially the motor boating community were unhappy about paying road tax on fuel, they accepted it with a degree of resignation. The body representing boats, the RYA, even managed to negotiate a degree of common sense in getting the government to accept a 60/40% split on fuel tax to allow for the amount used for heating on board.
It did however, leave one problem.
The UK has a geographic/demographic problem not seen anywhere else in Europe. That is that it has a long coastline, with a lot of boating spread round its shores, and a large (albeit diminishing) fishing fleet. This means that the supply arrangements are complicated. Red diesel is required in remote locations for the fishing fleet, but also relies on pleasure yachting to maintain an acceptable level of demand. Switch to unmarked white diesel, and the fishing fleet can no longer get fuel, leave it red and large parts of the UK coastline become no go areas for yachts. Either way, communities and businesses are destroyed.
So, the UK government decided to retain red diesel, and just charge tax to yachts.
This seemed a sensible solution, but then mainland Europe stepped in.
The legislation from Europe actually said, not only will tax be paid on fuel, but that the fuel must be unmarked.
And several countries are applying this rule very robustly.
Belgium in particular required its suppliers to clean their tanks and switch to unmarked fuel, and are now declaring red fuel illegal, and punishable by a large fine if found.
This leaves UK boaters in an impossible position. They can only get red fuel, but it is illegal in most of mainland Europe, hence rendering visits highly risky.
The Belgiums are setting penalty fines of several Euros per litre of tank capacity. Some larger motor boats and motor yachts can hold several thousan litres of fuel, so fines can be very large indeed.
The question has been raised in Europe
And the answer came back loud and clear... tough... its illegal
So... we remain stuck.
YBW forum user, Burnham Bob even wrote to the Belgian embassy asking for clarification, and received the following reply:
Dear Mr *******,
I’m contacting you following your writing to the Belgian embassy. Unfortunately the email you sent via the embassy website was not passed on to me and I apologise for that.
The Belgian authorities are currently awaiting the result of an investigation launched by the EU Commission following a UK complaint pertaining to the fining of yachts using red marine diesel in Belgian waters. Let me reassure you that my authorities will implement the COM’s recommendations, whatever those might be, once they have received them. Meanwhile, they will continue to implement strictly the EU legislation as they understand it should be.
So... it seems they agree with the European parliament...
He followed this up with more questions, and received further clarification:
Dear Mr *******,
I apologize for the somewhat belated reply to your last email but I wanted to make sure I had all pertinent information in my possession before coming back to you.
Although I understand the difficult position you and other British cruisers are in, I have to confirm that Belgium will indeed continue to fine pleasure vessels using dyed diesel. EU legislation clearly does not allow the use of dyed diesel for leisure vessels and Member States have to conform to this. It is worth noting that Belgium also used to allow for an exemption for pleasure vessels but put an end to it on the 31st of December 2006 in order to be in conformity with said EU legislation.
Belgian authorities have been in contact both with their British counterparts and with the Commission to explain it had no other choice but to implement EU legislation. Not doing so could be considered as an infringement. The Commission has never berated Belgium for its practice of fining the use of dyed diesel. Quite to the contrary, it is my understanding that the Commission has asked British authorities for explanations pertaining to its continued use of dyed diesel and started an investigation against the UK . Some of the confusion surrounding this question arises from early letters from the Commission which unfortunately contain some inaccurate information. As mentioned in my first email, we are currently waiting for a decision from the Commission and will in the meantime continue to respect and implement the EU legislation on the use of diesel.
Counsellor - Political Affairs
Embassy of Belgium
17 Grosvenor Crescent
London SW1X 7EE
So... where do we go from here?
Well, it appears no where at present... the situation is apparently being tackled by the RYA, but they are very quiet on the subject, with little or no communications of any value to the boating community, so not really sure where that is heading... in the meantime, the only answer is for UK flagged boats to avoid Belgium and Holland (and possibly France soon), and for boats from those countries to avoid the UK... sad, but the only viable option.
If you've bothered to read this far, then its probably because this issue affects you directly... so please make an effort to retweet, FB, or link to this post... the more attention we can get on the issue the better.