Strain of crisis shows in strikes across Europe
Workers across Europe downed tools in moderate numbers and staged largely peaceful protests in one of the most widespread shows of opposition to austerity policies that trade unions blame for falling living standards across the continent.
As a fresh batch of dire economic data highlighted Europe's failure to throw off its troubles, trade unionists in the eurozone's struggling southern member states led a wave of strikes to challenge the deep public spending cuts and their rationale as a means to address the sovereign debt crisis.
Some 40 unions in 23 countries were due to take part in a "day of action and solidarity", the European Trade Union Confederation said in advance of yesterday's action, but the biggest protests were on the Iberian peninsula.
Police and protesters clashed in Spain and Italy as millions of workers went on strike.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled, schools were shut, factories were at a standstill and trains barely ran in Spain and Portugal, where unions held their first joint general strike. Stoppages in Belgium interrupted international rail services.
Workers also protested in Greece and France against austerity policies that have taken a heavy economic toll and aggravated mass unemployment.
But the demonstrations organised by the European Trade Union Confederation seemed unlikely to force hard-pressed governments to change their cost-cutting strategies.
In Spain, 110 people were arrested – including two allegedly with material to make explosives – after confrontations at picket lines and damage to storefronts. Riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters in central Madrid in one brief clash.
In Rome, scuffles broke out between police in riot gear and demonstrators who threw stones, bottles and fireworks at police. About 60 demonstrators were detained. Protesters occupied Pisa's mediaeval leaning tower for an hour, hanging a banner reading, "Rise up. We are not paying for your crisis".
In Portugal and Greece – both rescued with European funds and under strict austerity programmes – the economic downturn sharpened in the third quarter, data released yesterday showed.
Portuguese unemployment jumped to a record 15.8pc while in neighbouring Spain, one in four of the workforce is jobless.
Greece's economic output shrank 7.2pc 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 EU.
Throughout southern Europe, governments are trying to put public finances back on track after years of overspending. EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn praised Spain for making progress in trimming its budget but acknowledged many Spaniards were struggling.
In Spain, most of the savings have been gobbled up by higher interest payments on the national debt, swollen by the cost of rescuing banks after a real estate bubble burst in 2008.
Promises from the ECB to support sovereign bond prices for countries that seek aid have brought some relief in the capital markets. Yesterday, Italy sold three-year bonds at the lowest borrowing cost in two years.