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Mass anti-austerity protests engulf Europe

Workers of the eurozone, unite!

Countless factories, transport networks and, public services were brought to a virtual standstill on Wednesday as millions of workers turned out in protest as part of a pan-European stand against relentless austerity and soaring unemployment.

Billed as the “European Day of Action and Solidarity”, mass-walkouts swept through the continent, with more than 40 trade unions from over 23 countries taking part in the demonstrations.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, protests gripped the Iberian Peninsula – where roughly a quarter of the workforce is unionised – as Spanish and Portuguese unions staged their first coordinated strike in history.

Across Portugal – where parliament is expected to increase average income tax by as much as 30 per cent in its upcoming budget –  schools were closed, public services disrupted, and public transport ground to a halt as mass protests flared.

Spanish unions followed suit, holding a 24-hour strike against the government’s failure to tackle the country’s woeful unemployment rate, which at 25 per cent is Europe’s highest.

600 flights have already been cancelled from Spanish airports as transport workers joined their Iberian counterparts in paralysing rail, road, and airport links. In Madrid, flashes of street violence saw over 80 arrested by midday. Shortly after, a phalanx of riot vans lined up in the capital as police reportedly fired rubber bullets into crowds of demonstrators.

Mass strikes raged in Italy, where its biggest union – CGIL – organised a series of rolling four-hour strikes across Rome, Milan, Turin, Florence and dozens of other towns and cities.

In Rome, workers were joined by students who attempted to march on the residence of prime minister Mario Monti in protest against planned cutbacks in the schooling sector, pelting riot police with rocks as they clambered for a way through.

In the most violent of the day’s protests, running street battles in Turin between activists and riot police saw 6 officers hospitalised.

The clashes followed a tense Tuesday in Sardinia, with industry minister Corrado Passera and minister for territorial cohesion Fabrizio Barca requiring helicopter evacuation after demonstrators blocked roads surrounding their offices with burning vehicles.

Unsurprisingly, Greek demonstrators flocked to the street as workers staged their third major walkout of the month in the wake of last week’s violence in Athens.  Protesters rallied in plazas across the capital to protest perennial unemployment and fresh austerity measures pushed through parliament last week.

In an increasingly precarious environment for the Greek government, one protester told The Guardian’s Helena Smith that the situation could plunge the stricken nation into revolution:

“There will be a revolt because we will have absolutely nothing to lose”, he warned.

The contagion of protest even spread to the eurozone’s stronger economies, with trade unions planning 130 marches in France and workers disrupting transport links in Belgium.

Even in Germany – the eurozone’s economic engine – pockets of union-led demonstrations cropped up across the country in a sign of solidarity towards the unified stand against austerity.

According to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the organisation behind the strikes,  the sheer scope of the protests reflects the catastrophic failings of austerity, which has served only to deepen inequality whilst stifling the growth so desperately required to keep the eurozone afloat.

In a statement, the ETUC declared:

The ETUC strongly opposes the austerity measures which are plunging Europe into economic stagnation, recession, and dismantling the European social model.

These measures, far from restoring confidence, are only aggravating imbalances and creating injustices.

Unemployment rates have hit record highs across Europe as of late, with the eurozone’s average rate currently standing at 11.6 per cent. In both Spain and Greece more than half of 18 to 24-year-olds are unable to find work.  

Growth indicators aren’t much better: Portugal’s economy is expected to contract by 3 per cent this year, whilst third quarter Greek GDP figures have plunged to -7.5 per cent.

More profoundly, Wednesday’s protests illustrate how the strict adherence to staunch fiscal parameters outlined by the troika – the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – has driven a wedge between establishment and society.

The unsavoury combination of higher taxes, plummeting welfare spending and crippling unemployment has fuelled charges against states of relinquishing economic sovereignty to outside financial bodies, who protesters accuse of dragging millions into poverty through their fervent pursuit of budgetary discipline.

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

Photo: Getty Images
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David Cameron's starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the governmen dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up t o£250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it. and reduce the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.