26 Sep 2012

Clashes in Greece as strikers protest austerity measures

Riot police fire tear gas in Athens as clashes break out in the first general strike since the new coalition took power. In Spain, anti-austerity protests threaten to tear the country apart.

Greek riot police have battled protestors in central Athens as tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest against the country’s harsh austerity measures.

Violence broke out as the marchers headed towards parliament, shouting slogans against the European Union and the IMF, who are demanding a new round of spending cuts in exchange for extra financial aid.

Youths dressed in black, with hoods disguising their faces, hurled stones and petrol bombs at the police, who fired teargas in response, before chasing them through Syntagama squareaway from the parliament building. Around a hundred and twenty people were arrested.

Workers across the country have been staging a one day strike, closing shops, shutting down museums and monuments, and leaving hospitals with emergency staff.

The ruling coalition, which took power in June, has pledged to make more than seven billion pounds in cuts over the next few years, in return for more emergency aid from Europe.

But most Greeks are furious that their wages, benefits and pensions are being slashed, while nothing seems to be getting better. A poll last week by MRB showed more than 90 per cent of Greeks saw the planned cuts as unfair, and burdening the poor, while most expected even more austerity to come.

Despoina Spanou, of the ADEDY union, said the government’s plans would hurt the Greek people and the economy, warning: “This strike is only the beginning in our fight.”

Spanish protests

But while Greece might be worst hit by the financial crisis, the violent protests against austerity measures could threaten Spain’s very unity. Ministers will unveil their tough new budget on Thursday. It is expected to include increases in sales and other taxes, cuts in welfare benefits and a freeze in public sector hiring.

This strike is only the beginning in our fight. Despoina Spanou, ADEDY union

And although Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has promised pensions will keep pace with inflation, most experts believe they won’t be able to meet their pledge to slash the public deficit to 6.3 per cent of GDP unless they tackle pensions, which make up a quarter of all government spending.

Last night a mass protest against the austerity measures in Madrid turned violent, as thousands of people clashed with riot police, furious that their government was still pouring millions of euros into shoring up the banks, while cutting welfare benefits for the poor. Dozens of people were hurt, and at least 38 were arrested.

But in Catalonia, Spain’s richest region, local politicians want to turn public anger into an opportunity to break free of Madrid altogether. The Catalan regional government has called a snap election for November which is, in effect, a referendum on self-determination.

Bid to break free

Catalonia represents around a fifth of the Spanish economy, and transfers around 15bn euros, equivalent to eight per cent of its economic output, to the central government every year. Barcelona is home to some of the country’s biggest companies: yet the region has been forced to seek a 5bn euro bailout from Madrid to help tackle spiralling debts.

Now, the nationalist Catalan president Artur Mas has declared it’s time to demand more powers over taxing and spending, and stop subsidising poorer parts of the country. “If Catalonia were a state we would be among the fifty biggest exporting countries in the world”, he told his parliament.

There is certainly plenty of support for self-determination. A banner strung high across Barcelona’s Placa de Catalunya reads simply: “Catalonia – the next independent state in Europe”. Hundreds of thousands joined a pro-independence march on September 11th, Catalonia’s national day, while a recent poll showed just over half the population would vote in favour.

But there are obstacles in the way of Mas’s ambition: many of the middle class voters who back his party may not have the stomach for confrontation – and Madrid remains firmly opposed to any kind of self-determination.

Last week Prime Minister Rajoy rejected plans for a new fiscal pact which would have given Catalonia more powers over local taxes: the Spanish constitution, he says, forbids any part of the country from breaking away.

A new crisis is being added to the crisis. Soraya Saenz de Santamaria

And according to Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, all this talk of independence is merely making things worse: “a new crisis is being added to the crisis.”

But with more austerity measures on the way in tomorrow’s budget, and the markets watching carefully for signs that Spain will meet its deficit-slashing targets, experts predict this is just the start of “a very hot autumn”.