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As Austerity Bites, the Mood in Europe Turns Ugly

Europe's attempt to restore solvency is provoking major demonstrations by those who feel they are being used as pawns by bankers and investors.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 3/27/2011, 9:28 PM / Last Update: 3/27/2011, 11:30 PM

 

The Eurovision song contest is usually the lyrical version of elevator music with vapid sound alike songs. The singers express their love of music, the world and life in general. This year's Portuguese entry is going to defy the pattern with a political protest song whose lyrics include lines such as

"The struggle is joy,

And as the people advance, it's in the street shouting”.

The song seems to owe its selection to the political and economic situation in Portugal where the government has just fallen and the stark no-choice is between a self-imposed austerity program of less government spending and higher taxes or an externally imposed austerity program with higher taxes and lower spending and benefits. This was enough not only to get people to vote for the song, but to get them, as the lyrics say, into the street shouting. Portugal's mega-demonstration in Lisbon 2 weeks ago was followed on Saturday by one in London.

Britain's Trade Union Congress called a protest against the government cuts, attracting between 250,000-500,000 people according to various estimates, making it the biggest demonstration since the anti-Iraq war rally. While the march was mostly peaceful, towards the end mayhem erupted when a radical minority headed to London's West End and began attacking some of London's most famous shops.

Fortnum & Mason, the gourmet food paradise, was occupied briefly by a radical group. Demonstrators threw sticks and bottles at the Ritz Hotel, banks were attacked and Trafalgar Square required a massive cleanup. 211 people were arrested and 66 injured, including 31 police officers. This is what occurred in civilized, moderate Britain.

In normally placid Brussels, the European Union summit was preceded by a trade union demonstration that gathered 20,000 people. The police had to put on extra security for the EU summit and close down subway stations near the headquarters of the EU. The unions were protesting the planned European competitiveness pact that would deprive unions of the right to collective bargaining by exercising supernational control over wage agreements. It would revoke the indexing of salaries to inflation and postpone the retirement age. The demonstrators carried banners reading : "Competitiveness Pact: No. Austerity Pact: No"

Although 12 policemen were injured in the demonstrations, Belgium actually got off easily ,because the trade unions wanted to shut down air traffic, stop the Eurostar cross-Channel train and jam the highways leading to Brussels, but relented at the end.

In Greece, where the bailouts started, major politicians, bothgovernment and opposition, dare not show their face in public. Problems persist for them even when they leave Greece, as Greek overseas students or expatriates have staged demonstrations against them.

There is little doubt that pressure is building up in Europe and it will require a combination of persuasion, political acumen and responsibility to prevent a degeneration of the system back to the worst periods of the 20th Century. The demonstrators and the unions feel that they are being betrayed to pacify the bankers and investors.