By Paul Meller
Protests against painful austerity measures and rising unemployment brought hundreds of thousands of workers out onto the streets in cities around Europe on Wednesday. They came as Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic official, disclosed that Spain need not impose extra austerity measures over the next 13 months to reach exacting deficit targets set by Brussels.
Demonstrations in the European Union district of Brussels were noisy but peaceful. A flash strike by public sector rail workers caused major disruption to international Eurostar and Thalys train services out of the Belgian capital, but left metro, bus and tram services around the city running more or less normally.
Public sector workers made up the bulk of the demonstrators around EU buildings but their numbers were boosted by the participation of the anti-capitalism ‘Occupy’ protest movement.
Anger at the sharp cuts in public spending was strongest in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, where austerity measures are having the greatest impact, and where unemployment has ballooned.
EU-wide unemployment has reached a record 11.6 percent, according to the European statistics agency Eurostat. But Greece and Spain have both recorded rates above 25 percent, with Greek youth unemployment reaching a staggering 50-plus percent.
All four countries saw major disruptions to their transport networks, according to news agency reports.
The 17 countries that make up the euro area slipped deeper into recession during the third quarter of this year but France, surprisingly, posted 0.2% growth in the third quarter – the same as Germany. However, Spain saw a further contraction of 0.3%, Austria slipped back with a 0.1% fall and the pro-austerity Netherlands declined a whopping 1.1%. Finland, one of the northern hardliners in the euro area, posted a 1% decline over 12 months. But Italy drooped “just” 0.2% – significantly less than six months ago.
Evidence of continued economic slowdown is being used as a justification for the tough austerity measures by some governments but it is also being cited by the protesters as evidence that austerity is choking off any economic recovery. These arguments will come to a head at the EU summit of mid-December.
Yesterday’s anti-austerity demonstrations were similar to those witnessed across the UK last month, where tens of thousands of people marched in London, Glasgow and Belfast to protest against sharp cuts in government spending. Britain, of course, saw 1% in the third quarter thanks to the Olympics effect but recent evidence suggests its economy has slipped back. We are indeed all in this together.