As Spanish workers demonstrated in the country's first national strike in eight years, protests against European governments' austerity plans were staged in Brussels and other EU capitals. An estimated 100,000 people are expected to converge on Brussels in response to a Europe-wide strike call given by the Confederation of Trade Unions. Large protests were predicted in Poland, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Romania and Serbia.
Spanish media reported that at least 15 people had been injured, one of them seriously, in clashes between strikers and police in Madrid. The government also said three police officers had been hurt in an incident involving picketers outside a factory of the European aerospace group EADS in the Madrid suburb of Getafe.
Life in Spain was severely disrupted by the strike despite an agreement between government and the unions that a minimum service would be maintained. In Madrid, frustrated commuters walked to work or waited at bus stops or at metro stations, garbage was left uncollected and thousands of union leaflets urging workers to stay at home littered the streets. Hundreds of strikers also briefly blocked the capital's emblematic thoroughfare, the Gran Via, shouting “strike, strike”.
Spain was one of the countries hardest hit by the recession with a spiralling internal debt and unemployment skyrocketing to 20 per cent — double that for the rest of Europe.
The government has taken a raft of austerity measures that include a reduction of public sector salaries and pension freezes as well as new labour laws that allow employers to fire workers more easily. These measures have proved deeply unpopular though protests have remained muted.
The European Union is not deaf to these rumblings of discontent and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told a group of financers: “No one should underestimate the sense of injustice that Europe's citizens feel today. European leaders, using European solutions, must define a new balanced way to recovery that illustrates that the lessons of the crisis have been learned and the burden shared.”
But with bankers' bonuses booming again and public spending being savaged, many feel there is little sign of balanced burden-sharing. “This is a crucial day for Europe,” said John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, which organised the Brussels protest.
“Our governments, virtually all of them, are about to embark on solid cuts in public expenditures. They're doing this at a time where the economy is very close to recession and almost certainly you'll see the economy go back into recession as the effect of these cuts take place.”