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29 Sep, 2010 11:15

Europe-wide protests kick off over austerity measures

Angry protests have raged across Europe with thousands gathering to speak out against their governments in a number of crisis-hit countries. They're frustrated with a string of cuts to jobs, wages and pensions.

The largest march has taken place in Brussels, near the headquarters of the EU Commission. People have come from all over Europe, arriving on trains, planes and automobiles. Unions estimated that nearly 100,000 people were marching, the AP news agency reported.

The police barricaded banks and shops in preparations for the march. There were some minor scuffles in Brussels – more than 140 people were detained, mainly because they had things not suitable for carrying on the march, according to the police. No injuries were reported there.

The general strike in Spain was the first one since 2002. Interestingly, there is a socialist government in Spain, so the strikes marked a split between trade unions and socialists at the top, despite the fact that they have been working together for quite some time. This is likely due to the 20% unemployment rate in Spain at the moment, which is what they were protesting against.

Transport workers went on strike in Madrid. As a result, people were unable to get to work either by bus or by subway.

In airports stranded passengers had to wait for hours to catch their flights, AP reported. The national carrier Iberia was operating only 35 percent of scheduled flights and Ryanair cancelled all domestic and most international flights.

Newspapers also went on strike, so there was no news for the day in Spain.

Around Spain demonstrators clashed with police. In Barcelona, students set fire to a police car. They also blocked streets with rubbish bins and police fired rubber bullets on them in the end.

Representatives of Spanish labor unions say the government is directly responsible for this social unrest.

“Government policy was based on public-private partnerships to intensify economic activity and create jobs, but since May the priority has shifted to reducing the deficit instead of stimulating the economy,” said Fernando Lezcano from the Spanish Labor Union. “That is how the government justifies the pensions freeze, reducing public sector salaries, withdrawing billions of euros from direct investment into the public sector and cutting back the rights of those who depend on the law. Sooner or later the government will have to change its mind, because if not, social unrest will make it impossible for them to govern.”

In Dublin, protestors greeted Irish MPs as they returned from their summer break. Ireland released very poor economic figures last week and it looks like the country may be in danger of sliding into default. There the major event of the day was a cement mixer with the words "Toxic Bank Anglo" written on it being crashed into the entrance of the Irish parliament building. The driver was arrested for that.

There were also marches in Portugal, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Serbia, Romania, Poland and France.

Greece also took part in the protests. In May, riots in the southern European country resulted in the deaths of three people.

Such protests could become even bigger and more frequent, warns F. William Engdahl, the author of “Gods of Money: Wall Street and the Death of the American Century”.

“Protesters have the potential power to change EU austerity policies,” he added.

However, David Campbell Bannerman, a member of the European Parliament from the UK Independence Party, does not think the demonstrations can somehow influence on EU policies, as “the austerity measures are inevitable.”

The EU government plans to raise the retirement age and slash jobs in the public sector in its effort to reduce debt, restore budget discipline and boost market confidence in the euro.

It comes as certain respected economists say it is time for the euro to go and for the so-called PIGS countries – Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, which have the largest amounts of debt – to drop out of the euro zone and go back to monitoring their own finances.

German economist Professor Max Otte from Worms University of Applied Sciences has called for the return of the Greek drachma, Italian lira and Spanish peseta.

“We still would have the European Union,” he said. “It is not like it would be a collapse of the EU, quite to the contrary. If we allow those countries to set their own economic policy again and to be sovereign in their currencies, we would do Europe a service. We are doing Europe a disservice by having this artificial currency imposed on it.”

“It could only lead to political tensions, like in Greece, where the population, the taxpayers have to suffer,” he added. “The only ones who did not suffer in Greece were the banks, because they were fully rescued. So to me that is a deal that is not quite equitable.”

Despite all this, other countries are still striving to join the euro zone. Estonia is the latest recruit. It will join in January, throwing its economic fortunes in with countries struggling to avoid collapse.