Protests Sweep Ailing European Nations
Tens of thousands of Spaniards protested on Tuesday (23 February) evening across the country in anger at the government's plans to raise the retirement age.
Some 70,000 took part in the demonstration in Madrid and 50,000 in Barcelona, according to organisers. Police estimated the crowd to be much less.
The protests are the first of a wave of rolling demonstrations planned for other towns and cities lasting until 6 March, with similar action expected in some of the EU's worst crisis-hit economies – Portugal, Ireland and Greece – which, together with Spain are collectively known by the acronym PIGS.
Called by the UGT and CCOO trade unions, the Spanish demonstrators focused their anger on the Socialist government's announced raising of the retirement age from 65 to 67, along with cuts to the public sector of €50 billion phased in over three years and a civil service hiring freeze.
The austerity measures, announced by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in January, are aimed at bringing down the state's public deficit, which exploded as a result of the economic crisis to some 11.4 percent of GDP, well above the 3 percent limit imposed by Eurozone rules.
Protesters for their part say that it is unfair that they bear the burden of a crisis caused not by them but by banks and other financial institutions.
The cuts are massively unpopular, with some 84 percent of the population opposed, according to a poll by Spanish centre-left daily El Pais.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, in Spain, which currently chairs the EU's six-month rotating presidency, for a joint meeting of the commission and the Spanish cabinet, offered Mr Zapatero moral support ahead of the protests, and called on all EU member states to make similar changes to their pension systems.
"There is in fact a problem and reforms must be made to pension systems in general," he told reporters in Madrid alongside the Spanish prime minister, as citizens are living longer lives and having fewer children.
The protests also came as Greece steeled itself for a general strike against its own socialist government's austerity programme.
Some 2 million people, opposed to the centre-left Pasok administration's planned cuts to government spending, are expected to down tools. Athens is under heavy pressure from financial markets and the EU itself to reduce its public deficit of 12.7 percent. The government has pledged to chop it down to 8.7 percent this year.
On Tuesday, ahead of the strike, the Athens Stock Exchange was blockaded by workers from the PAME union. The main entrances were barricaded although remote trading was able to continue.
Separately, Portuguese unions announced a general strike scheduled for 4 March against yet another centre-left government's cutbacks aimed at getting public finances under control.
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