MADRID: Riot police and anti-austerity protesters clashed in Spain and Italy on Wednesday as unions rallied millions of workers to a day of Europe-wide strikes and rallies.
General strikes in Spain and Portugal spearheaded an unprecedented coordinated protest across the continent, paralysing swathes of industry and hitting road, rail and air transport.
“Europe is waking up today — from Rome to Madrid to Athens,” said Mario Nobile, a 23-year-old university student in Rome.
Workers staged industrial walkouts in Italy, the eurozone’s number three economy, and in Greece, which is fighting to avert bankruptcy despite bowing to demands for new, sweeping austerity measures.
The European Trade Union Confederation behind the “Day of Action and Solidarity” said it was the first time it had organized such strike action in four countries 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.
The strike coincides with heated debate over the pursuit of austerity policies in the midst of recession.
The International Monetary Fund admitted last month that it had underestimated the extent to which such measures brake economic growth, opening the way to relaxed deficit-cutting targets in countries such as Portugal.
Most of the protests were peaceful.
But police charged demonstrators with batons in Spain, where unions claimed millions of workers had joined the general strike, 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.
Police arrested 82 protesters across the country and 34 people were wounded, including 18 police, the government said.
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.
In the main rally in the evening, tens of thousands spilled into Madrid’s streets, spreading around the main Atocha railway station and near the lower house of parliament, which was sealed off by riot police.
“We have the solution, send the bankers to prison!,” protesters chanted amid a sea of union flags.
But 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 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 center 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 armored cars to force them back.
Italian unions called a four-hour walkout, leading to the closure of schools, ports and many factories.
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 Portugal and Spain 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 and their protest was limited to a three-hour work stoppage and a rally in Athens estimated at 5,000 people by police.
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 of people took to the streets in cities across France, protesting at salary cuts, tax hikes and spending cuts in the eurozone’s second biggest economy.