Continent-wide protests against spending cuts and unemployment saw people packing the streets in some cities, but clearly illustrated the North-South divide in the European Union.
The European Trade Union Confederation said that 40 unions in 23 countries had joined the “day of action and solidarity” against the blanket of austerity imposed on state spending in the past four years.
This was the most successful co-ordinated, widespread protest so far, but persuading all Europeans to march in the same direction is as difficult for trade unions as it is for Brussels and national governments.
Strikes and protest marches were heavily supported in Portugal, Spain and Italy but attracted limited support in France and only tiny demonstrations in Germany and other Northern countries.
There were scores of arrests and minor injuries after scuffles between protesters and police in Spain and Italy. Schools, hospitals and public transport were disrupted by general strikes in Spain and Portugal. A four-hour strike was widely observed in Italy. Hundreds of flights were cancelled across the Continent.
The only country to defy the North-South trend was Belgium, where strikes interrupted local and international train services, including the Eurostar to and from London.
A demonstration in Frankfurt attracted only 100 people. In Paris and other French cities, there were protest marches but nothing like the large, raucous demonstrations that opposed pension and other reforms by ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy last year. Even in Greece the protests were relatively limited.
Spanish unions claimed that their general strike had been observed by 80 per cent of workers, closing most schools and reducing hospitals to a skeleton staff. In Portugal, a second general strike in eight months halted schools, public transport and rubbish collection. In Italy, there was a four-hour strike and demonstrations in many cities.
The protests were intended to persuade the EU – and individual governments – to soften or abandon the austerity programmes imposed to reduce budget deficits and appease international markets in the past two years.
Unions argue that the cuts are not only painful to the weakest in society but self-defeating .
The eurozone – the 17 countries that use the European single currency – is forecast to go into recession when official GDP figures for the second quarter are published today.
Unemployment in the eurozone has reached an unprecedented 11.6 per cent, heavily concentrated in the South where both Spain and Greece have 25 per cent out of work.
“There is a social emergency in the South,” Bernadette Segol, secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation, said.
“‘All recognise that the policies carried out now are unfair and not working.”