Protests against austerity measures being imposed in the eurozone were held in Belgium, Spain and Greece on Wednesday, a day ahead of a European Union summit aimed at tackling unemployment and boosting economic growth in the region.
In front of European Union headquarters in Brussels, hundreds of union protesters demanded drastic policy changes from the summit leaders, and representatives of the European Trade Union Confederation met with EU President Herman Van Rompuy to push their demands.
Instead of the stinging austerity measures that have hit workers in their wallets, the unions seek a financial transaction tax, a clampdown on tax evasion and a pooling of debt through the use of eurobonds.
"Enough is enough. Austerity measures do not work," said ETUC leader Bernadette Segol. "We have alternatives, and Europe must work for employment and social justice. And we haven't had that until now," Segol said at the demonstration.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso acknowledged on the eve of the two-day summit that the sacrifices needed to overcome the financial crisis must be better spread around if Europe wants to hold onto its cherished welfare state model of government.
"Sacrifices are being made on an unfair basis," Barroso said after meeting with leaders of the trade unions and employers federations in Brussels. He said he is looking to fight tax evasion and boost a financial transaction tax.
He said the crisis has put pressure on Europe's social welfare model since the austerity cuts in nations such as Greece and Ireland have pushed people over the poverty brink. At the same time, more taxes on companies could well undermine their international competitiveness.
"It is very difficult to establish this balance. We want to keep our social model, but at the same time there is a need to reform," Barroso said.
In addition to the several hundred international demonstrators outside EU headquarters, well over 1,000 Belgian union activists protested outside the national bank.
In Greece, unions in the crisis-hit country held a three-hour work stoppage and planned rallies in central Athens in opposition to painful new austerity measures that saw the government this week enforce a 22 percent cut in the minimum wage, as well as slash benefits and pensions.
In Spain, thousands of high school and college students demonstrated in cities against cutbacks in education in a country with nearly 29 percent unemployment and a major deficit crisis. Civil servants in the central region of Castilla La Mancha also were called to strike to protest wage cuts of up to 8 percent.
Ciaran Giles contributed to this story from Madrid, Spain, and Derek Gatopoulos from Athens.
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