Last updated: November 14, 2012 2:15 pm

Anti-austerity protests sweep 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 Wednesday’s action, but the biggest protests were on the Iberian peninsula.

Portuguese and Spanish workers closed schools, brought public transport to a halt and disrupted air travel on Wednesday in the peninsula’s first co-ordinated general strike. Riot police charged hundreds of demonstrators outside the parliament building in Lisbon after at least five people were injured by stones and bottles thrown by protestors. Police were seen make several detentions.

In central Madrid, small shops that had been closed earlier in the day began to open at around lunchtime, with a large police presence on the ground and helicopters circling over the city centre. Bigger demonstrations were planned for the evening, heightening the sense of trepidation on the streets.

Earlier, the Spanish interior ministry said “isolated incidents” during the strike had resulted in 82 arrests and 34 injuries, 18 of which were police officers, as of midday GMT. Protesters and police clashed in central Madrid, Reuters news agency reported.

“We are deeply grateful to the workers, who are in a very difficult situation with unemployment at almost six million,” said Cándido Méndez, secretary-general of Spain’s UGT union, who called for a change of direction in economic policy and claimed turnout was higher than the at last general strike in March.

Some shops remained cautiously open for business. Jose-Carlos Rubio, 48, said his intention was for his shop, a local newsagents, to remain open all day but he was worried about what would happen later in the day, in case people on their way to main protests expected after dusk grew angry that he had not closed.

“There aren’t many people who seem to be doing the strike. It is not the appropriate moment [to protest],” he said. “This is going to reflect badly on us abroad... The problem is unemployment and work, so people need to work to lift the country up by working, not going on strike.”

More than 200 flights were cancelled in Portugal. Lisbon’s normally busy metro was closed and train stations were left deserted by the strike, which mainly hit public services. Rubbish was left uncollected in towns and cities across the country.

Many hospitals and clinics were limited to essential services. The stoppage led to the closure of about 40 Portuguese embassies and consulates overseas.

Ports and shipyards were also affected. Pedro Passos Coelho, Portugal’s centre-right prime minister, said on Wednesday that a fall in exports in the third quarter was “largely due” to a separate longstanding strike by port workers.

Speaking at the reopening of a sausage factory damaged by fire, Mr Passos Coelho said the country as a whole was also engaged in an “intense struggle” to overcome difficulties. Praising those who made an effort to go to work or continue to look for a job despite the strike, he called for “as much political and social consensus as possible”.

However, the participation in the strike by a number of small shopkeepers and family businesses signalled that a previous broad consensus in Portugal over the need for austerity was growing fragile.

Several business leaders, including figures close to the government, have joined unions and opposition parties in pressing Mr Passos Coelho to ease austerity by asking international lenders for more time to meet deficit-reduction targets and to cut the interest rates Lisbon pays on rescue funds.

Spanish unions claimed 80 per cent of the workforce was participating in the strike. Parts of the public transport system in Madrid were running on minimum service, while most small shops in the city’s central commercial districts closed their doors, with only some large department stores remaining open for business.

Unions in Greece and Italy have planned work stoppages of several hours, while marches and demonstrations are scheduled in France and elsewhere. Protests took place in about 100 Italian towns and cities, with groups of workers and students blocking most of Rome’s main roads as they rallied.

Three policemen were wounded during a clash with students throwing stones as they marched to parliament in the capital.

A student in the industrial city of Turin in northern Italy was quoted as saying: “We are in the streets to protest against the law that cuts funds to public schools… How can we go on, we don’t even have enough desks in our school?”

Cgil, Italy’s largest trade union federation, staged its main protest in the small central town of Terni, starting from the plant of ThyssenKrupp, the German steelmaker, which intends stopping production in the site.

“In the last year what has been done [by government] burdens workers in the country and hits the weakest, who continue to become even poorer. Labour and social policies are paying the highest price for the actions of the government,” Susanna Camusso, secretary general of Cgil, told Sky television.

Labouring under the budget cuts imposed as part of EU rescue packages, the eurozone’s bailed-out members led the worst fall in the single currency bloc’s industrial production in more than three years.

Divisions between international creditors over how strictly to impose austerity conditions on rescued states spilled into the open this week when the International Monetary Fund and EU leaders publicly clashed on whether to relax Greece’s timetable for budget targets.

The division over bailout terms – seen as a bellwether for Europe’s response to its debt crisis – is expected to influence the treatment of Ireland and Portugal and comes as Spain is widely expected to seek assistance in funding its debts.

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