Many of Europe’s capital cities ground to a halt on Wednesday with a series of anti-austerity marches and co-ordinated strikes.
The demonstrations, which amount to the biggest pan-European attack on tough austerity budgets across a number of EU countries, were organised as part of a ‘European day of action and solidarity’ by the European Trade Union Congress (ETUC).
More than 80 people were arrested during riots in Madrid. Violence also flared up in Milan and Rome, with riot police firing rubber bullets at protesters.
Elsewhere hundreds of flights and trains were cancelled in Spain and Portugal after unions held their first coordinated general strike.
Bernadette Ségol, the ETUC general secretary, said that “by sowing austerity, we are reaping recession, rising poverty and social anxiety”.
“People’s exasperation is reaching a peak,” she added.
The ETUC reiterated its demand for a legally binding protocol on social policy to be included in any new EU treaty change. A declaration adopted by the ETUC executive committee stated that the budget cuts were “dragging Europe into economic stagnation…as well as the continuing dismantling of the European social model:”
In Brussels, several thousand demonstrators marched from Place Luxembourg outside the European Parliament to the European Commission and Council buildings on Schuman Rondpoint calling for an end to ‘casino capitalism’ and more social protection for those in work. Further protests were planned in the evening.
Trade unionist marchers were led by the Centrale Nationale des Employés (CNE), which represents 180,000 members. MEPs and officials from the leftist Gue/NGL group and Socialist and Democrat group also had delegations on the march.
GUE/NGL President Gabi Zimmer commented that “today’s mobilisations show the need and popular appetite for a radical change of course.
“It is time for economic, democratic, and social solidarity in the EU, not the further aggravation of inequality and social injustice,” she added.
Meanwhile, Phillip de Buck, who leads the pan-European business lobby BusinessEurope, said that the unrest would damage the economy. “If you start striking at national level and its companies you will only harm the economy”, he said.
In Portugal, there is growing public and political opposition to austerity measures sought by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.
Inspectors from the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, ECB and European Commission – who monitor implementation of bailout conditions – drew the protesters’ anger. In Lisbon, thousands gathered in front of parliament shouting “This debt is not ours” and “Out IMF, out troika”.
In Spain, protesters jammed cash machines with glue, and plastered anti-government stickers on shop windows. More than 600 flights were cancelled in Spain, mainly by Iberia and budget carrier Vueling. Portugal’s TAP cancelled about 45 percent of flights.
In Greece, hundreds of strikers rallied peacefully in central Athens, holding giant Italian, Portuguese and Spanish flags and banners proclaiming “Enough is enough.”
In France, trade unions organised marches in more than 100 cities but did not call for a strike.