POLICE and demonstrators clashed in Spain and Italy yesterday as millions of workers went on strike across Europe in protest at austerity cuts many claim has made the economic crisis worse.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled, car factories and ports were at a standstill and trains barely ran in Spain and Portugal where unions held their first general strike.
In Spain, 81 people were arrested after scuffles at picket lines and damage to shopfronts. Riot police in Madrid fired rubber bullets at protesters.
In Rome, students, protesting at education cuts, stoned police.
International rail services were disrupted in Belgium and workers in Greece, Italy and France marched as part of a “European Day of Action and Solidarity”.
It was the biggest Europe-wide challenge by organised labour to austerity policies that unions say have aggravated recessions and mass unemployment in nearly three years since the start of the eurozone’s debt crisis. A change of heart by member states seems unlikely.
In Portugal and Greece – both rescued with European funds and under strict austerity programmes – the economic downturn sharpened in the third quarter, new data showed yesterday.
Portuguese unemployment jumped to a record 15.8 per cent while in Spain, one in four of the workforce is jobless. Greece’s output shrank by 7.2 per cent on an annual basis in the third quarter as the debt-laden country staggers towards its sixth year of depression.
Close to 26 million people are unemployed in the European Union while governments aim to cut spending on health care and public schools.
“Everybody has to do something to call attention to what’s happening,” said Esteban Quesada, 58, a hardware shop-owner in Barcelona who closed to join the protests in Spain’s second city. “Things have to change … Money has ended up with all the power and people none. How could this happen?”
Spain, Portugal and Greece have all slashed spending on pensions, public sector wages, hospitals and schools. But frustration has mounted as the downturn has worsened. In Spain, most of the savings have been gobbled up to meet higher interest payments on the national debt, swollen by the cost of rescuing banks after the property bubble burst.
The tax rises and spending cuts are aimed at putting public finances back on a healthy track after years of overspending. In Spain, a decade-long building boom collapsed, leaving airports, roads and high-rise buildings half-built or in disuse.
Germany’s central bank, the Bundesbank, said the eurozone debt crisis was still the top risk to German banks and insurers, and the situation had not improved from last year.
While several southern European countries have seen bursts of violence, effective EU-wide protest to austerity has yet to gain enough traction to make governments change tack.
“We’re on strike to stop these suicidal policies,” said Candido Mendez, head of Spain’s second-biggest labour federation, the General Workers’ Union (UGT).
Mr Mendez said turnout for the strike – the second one this year – was massive, and well above 50 per cent in the public sector. The government claimed many services functioned normally yesterday.
In Portugal, which took an EU bailout last year, the streets have been quieter than in Greece or Spain but opposition to austerity is mounting, threatening to derail measures sought by premier Pedro Passos Coelho.
His centre-right government was forced by protests to abandon a planned increase in employee payroll charges, but replaced it by higher taxes.
“I’m on strike because those who work are basically being blackmailed into sacrificing more and more in the name of debt reduction, which is a big lie,” said Daniel Santos de Jesus, 43, who teaches architecture at the Lisbon Technical University.
Some five million people, or 22 per cent of the workforce, are union members in Spain. In Portugal, about a quarter of the 5.5 million workforce is unionised.