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Protests rattle Europe

Protesters make their message known loud and clear.

MADRID/LISBON — Police and protesters clashed in Spain today as millions of workers went on strike across Europe to protest spending cuts they say have made the economic crisis worse.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled, car factories and ports were at a standstill and trains barely ran in Spain and Portugal where unions held their first ever coordinated general strike.

Riot police arrested at least two protesters in Madrid and hit others with batons, witnesses said, and in Rome students pelted police with rocks in a protest over money-saving plans for the school system.

International rail services were disrupted by strikes in Belgium and workers in Greece, Italy and France planned work stoppages or demonstrations as part of a “European Day of Action and Solidarity”.

‘Suicidal policies’

“We’re on strike to stop these suicidal policies,” said Candido Mendez, head of Spain’s second-biggest labor federation, the General Workers’ Union, or UGT.

More than 60 people were arrested in Spain and 34 injured, 18 of them security officials after scuffles at picket lines and damage to storefronts.

Protesters jammed cash machines with glue and coins and plastered anti-government stickers on shop windows. Power consumption dropped 16 per cent with factories idled.

International lenders and some economists say the programmes of tax hikes and spending cuts are necessary for putting public finances back on a healthy track after years of overspending.

While several southern European countries have seen bursts of violence, a coordinated and effective regional protest to the austerity has yet to gain traction and governments have so far largely stuck to their policies.

Spain, where the crisis has pushed millions into poverty, has seen some of the biggest protests. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying to put off asking for European aid that could require even more budget cuts.

Passion was inflamed when a Spanish woman jumped to her death last week as bailiffs tried to evict her from her home. Spaniards are furious at banks being rescued with public cash while ordinary people suffer.

Mounting opposition

In Portugal, which accepted an EU bailout last year, the streets have been quieter but public and political opposition to austerity is mounting, threatening to derail new measures sought by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

His centre-right government was forced by protests to abandon a planned increase in employee payroll charges, but replaced it by higher taxes.

Passos Coelho’s policies were held up this week as a model by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is despised in much of southern Europe for insisting on austerity as a condition of her support for EU aid.

“I’m on strike because those who work are basically being blackmailed into sacrificing more and more in the name of debt reduction, which is a big lie,” said Daniel Santos de Jesus, 43, who teaches architecture at the Lisbon Technical University.

Five million people, or 22 per cent of the workforce, are union members in Spain. In Portugal about a quarter of the 5.5 million strong workforce is unionised.

Major demonstrations were planned for this evening in Madrid, Lisbon, Barcelona and other cities. (Reuters)

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