Wave of strikes and protests held in major cities and outside EU headquarters as anger over spending cuts escalates.
|Unions fear that workers will become the biggest victims of an economic crisis set off by bankers and traders [AFP]|
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets across Europe amid discontent over measures taken by the government to address the global economic crisis.
Who is protesting?
The protest organisers, the European Trade Union Confederation, were aiming to get 100,000 people to march in Brussels, the Belgian capital, where the EU’s headquarters is.
Trade unions said they had called rallies in 14 capitals from Lisbon to Helsinki, while Spanish unions held a general strike.
Demonstrations took place in Belgium, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, France, Latvia, Poland, Cyprus, Romania, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Serbia and Greece.
The protesters were largely public service workers from labour unions.
What are they protesting about?
The march in Brussels, Belgium, was called to take place as the EU Commission proposed new penalties to punish member states that have run-up deficits, mainly to fund social programmes in a time of high unemployment.
The proposal, backed by Germany, is running into strong opposition from France, which wants politicians to decide on sanctions, not rigid rules alone.
Unions fear that workers have become the biggest victims of an economic crisis set off by bankers and traders, many of whom were rescued by massive government intervention.
“It is a bizarre time for the European Commission to be proposing a regime of punishment,” John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said. “How is that going to make the situation better? It is going to make it worse.”
But many protesters were motivated by particular austerity measures in their home countries.
Spanish unions held a general strike to oppose measures such 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.
The unions said 10 million people, or more than half the workforce, were on strike.
Greece’s main unions, representing about 2.5 million workers, were protesting against measures prescribed by the EU and the IMF in return for bailing the country out. It raised the retirement age and curbed early pensions, a key element of an EU/IMF bailout.
Public sector wages were cut by an average 15 per cent in 2010 and will be frozen until 2014. Private sector wages were also frozen for this year and will only rise in line with euro area inflation in 2011 and 2012. The main VAT rate was increased by four percentage points to 23 per cent.
“Unfortunately, every time the government wants to fill its coffers it finds the easy solution, they immediately take it from the workers, making us the victims,” George Datis, a bus driver, said at a protest in Athens.
“They brought us to the point that we cannot support our families.”
In Ireland, the Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalised last year to save it from collapse, owes some $97bn to depositors worldwide, leaving Irish taxpayers with a mammoth bill at a time when people are suffering through high unemployment, tax hikes and heavy budget cuts.
“Savage cutbacks have been inflicted on the most vulnerable in the community accompanied by pay and pension cuts,” Jack O’Connor, the president of Irish Congress of Trade Unions, said.
France has said it will curb civil service spending, scrap tax breaks and otherwise count on accelerating economic expansion to replenish public coffers in 2011.
It plans to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60 by 2018, make people work longer for a full pension and raise public sector contributions to private sector levels. Top rate of income tax will be raised to 41 per cent from 40 per cent to help fund the pension regime.
As the protests took place, France unveiled the toughest spending cuts in 50 years, including unprecedented cuts to curb soaring overspending.
Portugal approved an austerity package in June to reduce the budget deficit. It ruled out drawing on the eurozone aid package but the draft 2011 budget is said to include significant spending cuts and additional measures on the revenue side.
“I am worried about the austerity measures that are coming, which are not aimed at fixing the current economic situation but to worsen it,” Arminio Carlos, a leader at the CGTP umbrella union, said.
In Slovenia, public service workers continued their open-ended strike to protest the government’s plan to freeze their salaries for two years – or until economy grows again at a rate of three per cent.
Germany agreed a package in June which will cut welfare spending by 30 billion euros over the period, reduce public sector payrolls by up to 15,000 by 2014 and raise new taxes on nuclear power plant operators and air travel.
Although Italy kept its budget deficit down to 5.3 per cent of GDP in 2009, the budget aims to cut the deficit to 2.7 per cent by 2012. It delayed retirement dates by three to six months, a state salary freeze and pay cuts for high public sector earners.