Protests against 'austerity summit' turn violent
24.03.11 @ 18:55
BRUSSELS - Trade union protests outside an EU summit in Brussels against the austerity being imposed across the continent by the bloc turned violent on Thursday (24 March), as riot police battled rock-wielding demonstrators with water cannon and pepper spray.
Four separate marches across the European capital comprising some 20,000 workers, according to organisers, converged on the meeting of European premiers and presidents. Police put the figure closer to 12,000.
The unions are protesting the imposition of the deepest level of economic integration in the EU's history - the delivery of 'economic governance' in the union that will require wage restraint, hikes in retirement ages, public sector cutbacks and limits on government spending, amongst other stringent measures.
"This happens while bankers and CEOs are continuing to receive huge and scandalous bonuses and pay and very little has been done to remove what really causes the crisis," ETUC said in a statement.
"The European trade union movement stands clearly against these policies and states that this is not only unfair because the burden is carried only by the ones who are not responsible for the crisis, but also wrong from a economic and strategic point of view."
Giant banners demanding: "Competitiveness Pact: No. Austerity Pact: No. Solidarity Pact: Yes" were draped by campaigners covering the centre of the roundabout at the top of the European quarter.
The violence kicked off after a few dozen red-dressed members of the Belgian socialist trade union, the General Federation of Belgian Workers (FGTB) attempted to break through police barricades and threw objects at the police.
According to police, 12 officers were injured in the clashes, which shut down traffic on much of the ring road surrounding the centre of the city. By mid-afternoon, the demonstrations had begun to wind down.
Similar actions were due to take place in Spain and Germany, according to trade unions, with a further major more nationally-focussed anti-austerity march to hit London on Saturday.
The demonstrations are part of a series of rolling actions across Europe. On 16 March in Bucharest some 50,000 workers hit the streets, according to the European Trades Union Congress and on 9 April in Budapest, Hungary's six trade unions are to descend upon a meeting of EU finance ministers.
Despite the violence, the protests in Brussels were actually scaled back from what the FGTB had originally threatened. Earlier this month, the union central had said it wanted to shut down air traffic control, the Eurostar train and all highways leading into the capital, but other unions felt such action went too far.
The anger highlights concerns expressed yesterday by one EU diplomat who told reporters that the cuts need to be imposed "as quickly as possible, very quickly when it comes to the most unpopular measures" in order to not get bogged down by such opposition.
EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy denied that economic governance targetted working people: "To the people demonstrating outside, I say: 'We take your worries seriously, but what we do is not about dismantling social protection. It is about making sure that our economies are competitive enough to create jobs and sustain the standard of living for all our citizens."
Demonstrators stalk Greek ministers across Europe
The protest came after a group of demonstrators invaded an event in the European Parliament on Wednesday evening where the Greek culture minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, was speaking.
A group of young Brussels-based Greeks unveiled a banner denouncing the European Union and the International Monetary Fund during a celebration in Brussels of the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, when Athenians managed to resist an attack by the Persian Empire. Protester Yiorgos Vassalos interrupted a film about the historical event, describing the EU and IMF as an "occupation force" akin to the "barbarians" that fought the Greeks two and half millennia ago.
While organisers were not pleased with the invasion of their event, the protesters received applause from many of those in the largely Greek audience in the packed EU parliament chamber.
In the last week, protestors have organised flash-mob-type actions when Greek ministers have appeared in public in different countries, including interrupting a speech by Prime Minister George Papandreou at Humboldt University in Berlin and an event in Paris attended by deputy premier Theodoros Pagalos.
On Wednesday, the Greek minister of labour, Louka Kasteli, was confronted by a group of angry unemployed workers who shouted him down and took over a press conference in the region of Macedonia. Similar protests trailed visits by Papandreou to the island of Syros last week while Pagalos was also found himself trapped in a taverna for two hours in the town of Kalyvia as a crowd of 500 furious locals hurled insults and yogurt at the MP.
Aris Chatzistefanou a reporter with Skai media group in Greece told EUobserver the anger in the country is boiling over even amongst regular citizens: "Not a single person from each of the main two parties can walk through the centre of Athens without being assaulted."
"MPs have stopped going to restaurants they used to go to. Not just because they are worried they will be shouted at or attacked. The restaurant owners are telling them not to come because it's bad for business."
EUOBSERVER TV / BRUSSELS (23 March 2011) - Demonstrators unfurl banners during a speech by the Greek culture minister in the European Parliament.
Watch more EUobserver videoes here