Public sector workers across Europe are feeling the pinch as government austerity measures bite [AFP]
Demonstrations and strikes are taking across Europe in protest at deep public-spending cuts being introduced by debt-laden national governments.
Labour leaders from across the continent called workers onto the streets to take part in the largest protest of its kind in more than a decade to oppose so-called austerity measures.
Europe lost millions of jobs during the financial crisis, and more look set to vanish as public sectors across the region are shrunk by governments eager to save money.
Up to 100,000 people were expected to descend on Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Union, on Wednesday, with other protests planned in Spain, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal and Serbia.
“We will demonstrate to voice our concern over the economic and social context, which will be compounded by austerity measures,” John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said.
Protests began in Spain the morning, with picketers throwing eggs at buses and blocking lorries 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.
Other Europe-wide protests are also targeting a controversial EU plan to fine governments that run unsustainable deficits, details of which is set to be released by the European Commission on Wednesday.
The EU’s finance ministers are due to meet in Brussels later this week to discuss the proposals, which are designed to bolster confidence in the euro currency. But unions argue will prompt governments to make spending cuts so severe that national economies are plunged back into recession.
“This is a crucial day for Europe because our governments, virtually all of them, are about to embark on solid cuts in public expenditures,” Monks said.
“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.”
Spending cuts have already triggered unrest in Greece, and with more austerity measures to come, the possibility of civil strife spreading across Europe is increasing.
In Slovenia, public-service unions are continuing a strike that started on Monday after the government froze workers’ wages for two years.
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,” said Jean-Claude Mailly, a French labour leader who heads the FO union.
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.