Anti-austerity protests hit Europe

Wave of strikes and protests held in major cities and outside EU headquarters as anger over spending cuts escalates.

Demonstrators from 30 different countries have converged on Brussels, the Belgian capital, to protest cuts [Reuters] 

Thousands of workers from across Europe have taken to the streets to protest against a growing number of austerity measures adopted by governments to combat public deficit crises.

Police barricaded banks and shops in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, where labour leaders estimated 100,000 people turned out; other estimates placed the turnout closer to 60,000.

Strikes and demonstrations over austerity measures were also held in Spain, Greece, Portugal, Slovenia, Poland, Italy, Serbia and Ireland.

“We’re here to say ‘no’ to the multiplying number of austerity plans, whether adopted by governments or by European institutions,” Bernard Thibault, head of the major CGT French trade union, said in Brussels.

Europe lost millions of jobs during the financial crisis, and more look set to vanish as public sectors across the region are shrunk by debt-laden governments eager to save money.

Spanish action

Protests began in Spain on Wednesday morning, with picketers throwing eggs at buses and blocking trucks on a main thoroughfare in Madrid, the capital.

Striking workers also staged a pre-dawn sit-in outside a garage housing buses in the city, screaming “scabs” at drivers attempting to get out onto the road.

Unions are angry at wage cuts and tax increases put in place by the country’s socialist government, amid high unemployment – with the jobless rate more than doubling since 2007 hitting 20 per cent in July this year.

In Ireland, a cement-mixer plastered with anti-banking slogans blocked the entrance to parliament, while trade union leaders planned to march to the building’s gates later in the day.

Greece, which has seen a series of strikes and protests over the strict spending measures imposed to remedy the country’s severe debt problems, saw public hospital and transport workers stage a strike, disrupting travel in the country.

In Slovenia, public-service unions are continuing a strike that started on Monday after the government froze workers’ wages for two years.

Protesters in Brussels are targeting a controversial EU plan to fine governments that run unsustainable deficits. Jacky Rowland, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Brussels, said the unions argued that budget cuts will not help Europe out of recession but slow economic growth.

“The demonstrators want the banking sector to bear the burden of the recession, with a new tax on financial transactions. A proposal that many European politicians dismiss,” she said.

John Monks, Secretary-General of the European Trade Union Confederation, said: “This is a crucial day for Europe because our  governments, virtually all of them, are about to embark on solid cuts in public expenditures.

“They’re doing this at a time where the economy is very close to recession, and almost certainly you’ll see the economy go back into recession as the effect of these cuts take place.”

Public anger

There is widespread public anger that governments are making the cuts after spending billions on propping up investment banks as they teetered on the brink of collapse during the financial crisis.   

European governments were forced to ramp up public spending to avert total meltdown during the global financial crisis, leaving them with huge structural deficits.

Union leaders argue that the public are being made to pay for the bankers’ mistakes.

“Those responsible for this crisis, the banks, the financial markets and the ratings agencies are all too quick in asking for help from states and public budgets and today want the workers to pay for their debts,” Jean-Claude Mailly, a French labour leader who heads the FO union, said.

The pain of payback is being felt across Europe. In Greece, where the EU and International Monetary Fund stepped in earlier this year to prevent the country defaulting on its debts, severe austerity measures have already sent unemployment to a 11-year high.

Ireland, formerly known as the Celtic Tiger for its robust economy, is facing unemployment at a 16-year high as welfare payments and civil service wages have been cut.

In Britain, a massive belt-tightening plan launched by the coalition government will see some ministry budgets slashed by 25 per cent and an increase in the retirement age.

France and Italy are also planning major spending cuts to fill black holes in their public coffers and are braced for more protests from unions, who say workers will suffer disproportionately as a result.

Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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