|Protesters are angry at a range of tough spending cuts designed to curb nations' growing public deficit [Reuters]
Thousands of protesters urging an end to Europe-wide austerity measures are marching in Brussels, the Belgian capital, outside a venue where regional leaders are meeting.
Police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse groups of demonstrators close to the European Union summit on Thursday, after activists blocked key roads in the city and caused a traffic gridlock.
Unions are calling on people to challenge EU leaders' moves to commit governments to a new "Euro Pact" expected to be announced, that seeks to moderate wages to make Europe's economy more competitive in the global market.
"The European Commission's annual examination of growth as well as the competitiveness pact launched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will drag wages and social rights down to dangerous levels," Belgium's CES union said in a statement.
Audrey Lhoest, spokeswoman for the Socialist FGTB, said "about 15,000" people were expected to turn up for Brussels protest, corresponding with advance estimates given by local police.
Protesters are angry at austerity programmes set up across the region to control debt deficit, saying that they do not want to bear the burden of the economic crisis.
The resignation of Jose Socrates, the Portuguese prime minister, and the situation in Libya were the main topic of discussion during Thursday's meeting.
Socrates stepped down after parliament rejected his government's latest austerity measures aimed at avoiding EU financial assistance.
European partners could come to Portugal's rescue if the crisis-hit caretaker government asks for financial assistance, Belgium's finance minister has said.
"We are obviously ready to step in and help, but Portugal has to ask first," Didier Reynders said.
"I have always thought that it would be useful to organise aid, simply because that allows [Portugal] to pay less interest on its debt while undergoing restructuring, and therefore make less demands, sometimes onerous ones, on [its] people."
"If Portugal asks, we will be ready to intervene. For that to happen, there will need to be a [negotiated] plan to bring its finances back to better health, and a request to unlock European funds."
Pedro Passos Coelho, the head of Portugal's main opposition centre-right Social Democratic party, said he hoped the debt-ravaged country could avoid calling in a EU bailout.