Thousands rally in opposition to austerity


EUROPEAN DAY OF PROTEST:DEMONSTRATORS MARCHED through Brussels in their tens of thousands as trade unionists throughout Europe staged protests against the austerity measures being planned across the continent.

Traffic in parts of central Brussels came to a standstill as marchers, many of them carrying union flags and banners, made their way from one of the city’s main train stations to the headquarters of the EU Commission and the European Council.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which organised the march and similar protests in more than a dozen other cities, said “more than 100,000” workers answered its call to demand growth-oriented policies from European governments.

While Belgian police said the attendance was more like 56,000, ETUC general secretary John Monks claimed a success. “Workers are on the streets today with a clear message to Europe’s leaders: there is still time not to choose austerity, still time to change direction,” he told the rally.

“Austerity measures are still in the decision-making stage but their implementation will have a disastrous impact on individuals and on the economy once the effects start being felt, which could be as early as this winter. We realise that governments have deficits that have to be absorbed but we ask them to take their time to pay their debts.”

European trade union leaders called the Brussels protest, at which some 218 people were arrested for minor offences, as a gesture of solidarity with their Spanish counterparts, who staged a general strike.

As well as in Dublin, there were demonstrations of varying scale in Lisbon, Rome, Riga, Warsaw, Nicosia, Bucharest, Prague, Paris, Athens and Belgrade.

A heavy security presence was visible at the Brussels march, with razor wire erected around city’s European quarter

The march was led by a group of black-suited protesters with blackened faces, symbolising stock market speculators in a mock funeral cortege for Europe. Protesters blew whistles and vuvuzelas and held placards bearing the slogans: “No to Austerity” and “Priority for Jobs and Growth”.

An ETUC delegation later met Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, and European Commission chief José Manuel Barroso.

Mr Barroso said the European authorities understood the “social knock-on effect” of austerity but said political leaders saw no other way through the economic crisis, which is the worst since the 1930s.

Echoing a wave of general strikes in Greece as the country came close to bankruptcy, large numbers of public transport workers walked off the job and closed metro and tram systems in Athens. Rail workers also went out on strike.

Protesters in Warsaw, including miners and shipyard workers, marched to prime minister Donald Tusk’s office chanting: “No to budget cuts!” and “Yes to job protection and economic growth!” About half of public sector staff in Slovenia were on strike for a third day against a planned wage freeze.