MADRID (AFP) - Riot police and anti-austerity protesters clashed in Spain and Italy on Wednesday as anger boiled over on a day of Europe-wide strikes and mass demonstrations that drew tens of thousands of people and paralysed transport and industry.
“Europe is waking up today - from Rome to Madrid to Athens,” said Mario Nobile, a 23-year-old university student in Rome.
General strikes in Spain and Portugal paralysed swathes of industry and hit road, rail and air transport, as workers vented their frustration at state cut-backs aimed at dragging the eurozone out of its deep debt crisis.
Seething workers also staged industrial walkouts in Italy, the eurozone’s number three economy, and in Greece, which is fighting to avert bankruptcy even after parliament adopted a new multi-billion euro austerity package demanded by its international creditors.
The European Trade Union Confederation behind the “Day of Action and Solidarity” said it was the first time four countries had held coordinated strike action in Europe.
“We need urgent solutions to get the economy back on track, not stifle it with austerity,” said Bernadette Segol, general secretary of the union confederation.
Violence erupted as police charged demonstrators with batons in Spain and running street battles erupted in Italy.
In Madrid, riot police fired rubber bullets into the air and struck protesters with batons in the central Plaza de Cibeles square, an AFP journalist at the scene said.
The clashes erupted when a police cordon blocked demonstrators from joining a rally in the square. Earlier, police swung batons and pushed away hundreds of young protesters to prevent them blocking the nearby Gran Via avenue in the Spanish capital. Crowds of protesters chanted “Abuse of power;” and “More education, fewer police.”
Police arrested 82 protesters across the country and 34 people were wounded, including 18 police, the government said.
In Italy, 17 police officers were wounded in clashes as tens of thousands of students and workers took to the streets of Rome, Milan, Turin and around 100 other towns and cities, calling for more safeguards for jobs and pensions and protesting against Prime Minister Mario Monti.
In the most serious incident, around 20 activists were seen beating an officer with sticks and baseball bats in Turin, while a dozen officers were hurt in running street battles in the centre of Milan, police said.
In Rome, dozens of young protesters hurled stones and bottles and smashed up cars as they tried to break through lines of police who responded with tear gas and used armoured cars to force them back.
“The ‘PIGS’ are rebelling!” said Nobile, using a derogatory acronym for the most troubled eurozone economies of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain.
Italian unions called a four-hour walkout, leading to the closure of schools, ports and many factories.
Spanish unions said participation in the strike was massive, surpassing 85 percent in some industrial sectors, but the government said the impact was more modest with electricity usage down 15.8 percent from normal.
Spain’s Economy Minister Luis de Guindos said the strike was “not the right path” to reduce uncertainty and insisted that austerity was the only way out of the crisis.
In Portugal, the general strike brought Lisbon’s metro service to a halt while ferries across the River Tagus and trains across the country ran skeleton services.
Both Spain and Portugal have legislation guaranteeing minimum services in essential industries. But in Spain, Iberia, Iberia Express, Air Nostrum, Vueling, Air Europa and easyJet cut more than 600 flights including some 250 international routes. Ryanair said no flights had been scrapped yet.
Portugal’s TAP said it was grounding more than 170 flights, most of them international.
Greece’s unions are focused on the national crisis, rather than the European-wide action, and their protest was limited to a three-hour work stoppage and a rally in Athens.
Union-led rallies to support the day of action were being held in France, Belgium and in Poland, where workers decried a “social and wage-dumping” in their country.
Thousands took to the streets in cities across France, protesting at salary cuts, tax hikes and spending cuts in the eurozone’s second biggest economy.
In Germany, viewed by many in southern Europe as the paymaster behind the austerity drive, the union federation DGB called protests across the country including in Berlin and Frankfurt. “In Greece, Spain, Portugal, savings are being carried out in a one-sided way, at the expense of the people,” DGB president Michael Sommer said.
“These countries are not only making cutbacks but are being cut back to death. It’s for that reason there is this resistance, this revolt,” Sommer said.