Unions March Against Austerity in Europe

With conservatives in power in most of Europe, the left is rallying to protest spending cuts and pension reform.

Throughout Europe people are taking to the streets to protest announced austerity measures. With conservatives in power in most of the eurozone countries, students are organizing demonstrations and unions have launched strikes against plans to cut welfare spending and raise the retirement age.

After spending billions of euros on stimulus measures and the nationalization of major financial firms, all of the eurozone is bracing for spending cuts. Despite American calls to continue deficit spending lest austerity imperil the global recovery, European governments are committed to restoring balance to their budgets.

Germany, which has recovered impressively from its recession, largely thanks to a recent surge in exports, has been leading the European austerity effort and called for a stricter implementation of budget rules for its fellow eurozone members.

Although the European Commission recently proposed to sanction states that violate fiscal treaty, there is still much discontent in Germany for having to bail out Greece last April and effectively save the euro since. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition lost its upper house majority in May and has been plagued with internal dissent. The only thing keeping the ruling conservative and liberal parties together, it seems, is the prospect of early elections benefiting the left-wing opposition.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling alliance in Italy is similarly wrecked with internal upheaval at a time when the country is preparing multibillion euro budget cuts.

The Italian government is set to freeze public-sector salaries and cut financial support for provincial and local governments. Students and unions have protested announced education and tax reform measures but because of a rift between Italy’s major trade unions and the slow implementation of austerity plans, demonstrations so far have been relatively unorganized.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government is also facing mounting public discontent. Earlier this week, after nearly a month of increasingly dramatic public-sector strikes, more than three million Frenchmen marched against the president’s plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Students joined in the protests, threatening to escalate them into open rebellion against a presidency that is now deeply unpopular with the political left. Air and rail services were disrupted. Oil refines have had to shut down for days.

Sarkozy is unlikely to relent however. The president is determined to push for pension reform during his last twenty months in office. Raising the retirement age is a vital measure in his effort to rescue France’s “social model” from financial ruin.

Spain, which remains mired in recession because of the unwillingness of it socialist government to enact reforms in the immediate aftermath of the downturn, continues to suffer from high unemployment rates and a financial system that appears hopelessly gridlocked. People are protesting announced austerity measures but afraid of losing popular as well as union support, the socialists in power have been reluctant so far to undertake serious spending cuts in spite of an almost 10 percent budget deficit.

In Greece, where the crisis hit the hardest, demonstrations have turned most violent. With a government that plunged deep into the red and a welfare state run amok, heavy spending cuts are necessary but they come as quite a shock to most Greeks, especially those who are on the government’s payroll and used to generous salaries and pension provisions.

People haven’t taken to the streets in all parts of Europe however. In the United Kingdom, David Cameron’s government has committed to entitlement reform but despite occasional hiccups from the Labor opposition, mass demonstrations haven’t taken place. In the Netherlands too, where a new right-wing coalition has just formed a government, there haven’t been many protests against announced welfare and pension reforms.

In Central Europe, where the political right was also on the rise this summer, protest has been limited. Trade unions organized a demonstration in Slovakia earlier this month while tens of thousands of public-sector workers marched on Prague in September. In neither country however, the government has scrapped plans to cut spending.