Tens of thousands of protesters
took to the streets of Europe as strikes against austerity measures that have
hit public spending and services on the continent caused widespread disruption.
The main demonstrations were in Spain,
Belgium and Greece, although there was co-ordinated action in more than a dozen
countries including Portugal, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania.
One of the largest protests
converged on a park in Brussels. The demonstrations in the European capital were
reinforced by Spain’s first general strike in eight years, which was called to
oppose the Spanish government’s spending cuts and reforms of the labour market
and pensions. In Portugal, unions said 50,000 protesters joined a march in
Lisbon and 20,000 in Porto.
“It’s a crucial day for
Europe,” said John Monks, general secretary of the European Trades Union
Confederation, which orchestrated the events. “This is the start of the
fight, not the end. That our voice be heard is our major demand – against austerity
and for jobs and growth.
You’ve really got to reschedule
these debts so that they are not a huge burden on the next few years and cause
Europe to plunge down into recession.”
In Brussels marchers from across
Europe waved union flags and carried banners saying “No to austerity”
and “Priority to jobs and growth”, bringing parts of the city to a
As the protests were staged the
centre-left cabinet in Portugal called an emergency session to try to prune
more from public spending, as it grappled with a debt and deficit crisis that
has thrown the spotlight back on to the country.
In Paris, the government of
President Nicolas Sarkozy was wrestling with similar measures, although all the
signs are that Sarkozy will not risk worsening his low ratings in the opinion
polls with further substantive budget cuts.
Protesters in Brussels included
steelworkers from the Ruhr, office workers from Wallonia, miners from Silesia,
and civil servants from Lille, all demonstrating against the job losses,
deferred retirement ages, diminished pensions, and cuts to schools, hospitals
and welfare in their various home countries.
Unions said 100,000 demonstrators
had gathered in Brussels although police put the figure at around half that,
56,000, and reported a couple of hundred arrests following scuffles with
“anarchists” in the city centre.
Protesters clashed with police in
Barcelona and set fire to a police car. Spain’s general strike was the first
time the unions had challenged their ostensible ally, the socialist Prime Minister
José Luis Zapatero.
The strike won more support from
workers than a weak public sector walk-out in June, yet its impact was limited,
as Spaniards have resigned themselves to austerity to trim a massive deficit
even though unemployment is now more than 20 per cent.