Hundreds of thousands of Europeans mounted one of the biggest coordinated anti-austerity protests across the continent on Wednesday, marching against German-orchestrated cuts as the eurozone is poised to move back into recession.
Millions took part in Europe-wide strikes, and in city after city along the debt-encrusted Mediterranean rim thousands marched and scores were arrested after clashes with police.
There were banners declaring “Austerity kills,” Occupy masks, flares, improvised loudspeakers and canceled flights. However, there was also a violent, even desperate edge to the demonstrations, particularly in Madrid and several Italian cities.
In the Spanish capital, police fired rubber bullets to subdue the crowd; in Pisa, protesters occupied the Leaning Tower; and in Sicily cars were burned.
“There is a social emergency in the south,” secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation Bernadette Segol said.
Swingeing austerity in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal has sent unemployment soaring: There are now more than 25 million unemployed Europeans and about one in every eight people in the eurozone is jobless. Figures to be released today are expected to show that the eurozone has tipped back into recession.
The Italian union CGIL led a four-hour general strike in Italy to protest against labor reforms instituted by Italian Premier Mario Monti’s government that ease hiring and firing rules.
They also protested over unemployment, spending cuts and tax hikes which are hitting families hard just as the recession sends thousands of businesses under. In Naples and Brescia, protesters occupied railway tracks; in Genoa, the entrance to the ferry port was blocked.
In Padua, two police officers were injured in clashes and 10,000 people marched in Bologna. There were clashes in Milan and in Venice protesters draped a bank with banners reading: “You are making money out of our debts.”
In Rome, where there were four separate marches, traffic was brought to a standstill.
In Spain, riot police were out in force in the emblematic Puerta del Sol square, where protesters have gathered for centuries, but particularly since the “indignant” movement sprang up 18 months ago.
Spanish unions launched their second general strike this year to protest at budget cuts they say are strangling the economy, killing jobs and hurting all but the well-off.
They accuse the conservative People’s party government of breaking promises made in its election campaign a year ago and of using the crisis as a smokescreen for dismantling public services, creeping privatization and undermining workers’ rights.
In Athens, the turnout was thinner than usual, perhaps because of last week’s two-day strike. Protesters described a country running out of reserves. Many have survived three years of recession and austerity by relying on family support or handouts.
“But when that dries up, and it will with these latest measures, there will be no reason not to descend en masse on to the streets,” said Kostas Kapetanakis, a young sociologist holding a banner in Syntagma Square demanding free education, health and welfare. “There will be a revolt because we will have absolutely nothing to lose.”
Greeks, who on average have seen their purchasing power fall by 35 percent, want pay and pension cuts to be revoked and collective work agreements — a hard-earned right — to be reinstated.
The prospect of up to 150,000 civil servants being fired by 2015, a central tenet of the 13.5 billion euros (US$17.2 billion) austerity package passed in Athens last week, is another grievance. The first wave is to be laid off by December.